Sunday, July 31, 2011

Theobald Smith

Theobald Smith was born on July 31, 1859 in Albany, New York. His father, a German immigrant, ran a small tailoring shop. His mother taught him to play the piano at an early age and he was a good student in math. Smith attended public schools in Albany and won a full tuition scholarship to Cornell University. While at Cornell he earned extra money playing a church organ. He graduated from Cornell in 1881.

After graduation Smith initially intended to go into teaching, but he was unable to find a teaching job. His second choice was medicine and so he attended Albany Medical College graduating in 1883. After two years of medical school he did not feel himself ready for clinical practice so he returned to Cornell for graduate school and began working for Daniel E. Salmon at the newly established Bureau of the Animal Industry, which had been set up by the U.S. Congress in 1884 to fight animal diseases. Without any training in microbiology Smith taught himself by reading the papers of Pasteur, Koch, and Virchow. While at the BAI Smith isolated for the first time what came to be called Salmonella (named after Daniel Salmon) and was able to prove that Texas fever, a debilitating cattle disease, was carried by ticks. This was the first discovery of an arthropod borne disease.

In 1895 Smith took over running the Massachusetts State State Antitoxin Laboratory and in 1896 became professor of comparative pathology at Harvard University. While in Boston he continued his research on animal diseases and established that if animals are repeatedly exposed to a bacteria they become hypersensitive to it. This phenomena is known as anaphylaxis. His work on vaccines established that killed bacteria could act to generate immunity to living bacteria and he established that diphtheria could be vaccinated against by combining diphtheria toxin with its anti-toxin in a vaccine. In 1915 Smith left Harvard for the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research as the head of the Department of Animal Pathology. He remained at the Rockefeller institute until his retirement in 1929.

Smith was considered on of the most notable figures in American medicine at the time. Honors won by Smith include the Copley Medal, awarded by the Royal Society in 1933 and eleven honorary degrees from prestigious universities.

Smith died on December 10, 1934.


Schultz, Myron; "Theobald Smith"; Emerging Infectious Diseases 14:1940-1942 (2008)

Zinsser, Hans; "Biographical Memior of Theobald Smith: 1859-1934" in Biographical Memiors Vol. 17; National Academy Press 1936

Theobald Smith Wikipedia Entry

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