- Suppressing the Diseases of Animals and Man: Theobald Smith, Microbiologist
Discovery ofTexas fever parasite in tick eggs this afternoon. . . . Finished reading Lorna Doone this week. Using hose on grass almost every evening.(113)
This entry from the diary ofTheobald Smith encapsulates much of what is essential to understanding the life of this remarkable scientist and scholar. In these phrases are captured not only Smith's professional accomplishment, but also his varied interests, practical nature, and modesty. Written in 1890, at the moment of his greatest professional triumph, Smith's statement offers a hint at what an extraordinary and complex man he was—and why he is so deserving of biographical remembrance. Suppressing the Diseases of Animals and Man:Theobald Smith, Microbiologist, by Claude E. Dolman and Richard J. Wolfe, is the first comprehensive attempt to tell his story.
Smith, born in Germany in 1859 but raised in the United States, was one of the preeminent microbiologists and bacteriologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among his professional and lay contemporaries, his name was mentioned along with those of Pasteur and Koch, and his scientific accomplishments were considered on par with those of such giants. That such an accomplished scientist and scholar could today be all but unknown even to students of microbiology emphasizes how timely and essential this book is.
While an undergraduate at Cornell, Smith revealed a practical and focused nature in a series of resolutions he wrote prior to his sophomore year: "never waste little spaces of time listlessly and aimlessly, but employ them to good object," and "never sit by the window and look out vaguely" (33-34). Completing medical school in Albany in 1883, Smith took a position at the U.S. Bureau of Animal Industries (BAI). Under the supervision of Daniel E. Salmon, Smith initiated one of the most productive periods of his research career. Unfortunately, Smith's early work with swine plague and hog cholera was consistently coopted by Salmon, who sought to assume credit for the work of his protégé. Nevertheless, it was at the BAI that Smith reached the pinnacle of his scientific success. After several years of investigation, Smith was the first to identify the causative organism of Texas fever, a devastating disease that killed thousands of head of cattle in the United States annually. Unsatisfied with merely identifying the pathogen (later recognized as a form of Babesia spp.), Smith later devised a series of novel experiments to determine how the organism was passed between animals. The confirmation of an insect (tick) vector paved the way for understanding of the means by which human infections such as yellow fever and malaria were spread. However, in part because of Salmon's meddling, Smith has [End Page 471] the dubious distinction among those who followed him in this work of not having his contributions recognized with the Nobel Prize.
Leaving the BAI in 1895, Smith ensconced himself at Harvard, where he also directed the Massachusetts public health laboratories. In this role, Smith established one of the most efficient and productive diphtheria antitoxin laboratories in the country. In just seven years, production at the facility increased from 1,724 to 40,211 packages of life-saving antitoxin each month. While at Harvard, Smith further secured his public health legacy with pioneering work in water safety, focusing on the cleanliness of the Charles River.
In 1914 Smith was wooed to the nascent Rockefeller Institute (later University). Turning down an offer to be the Rockefeller's first president, Smith instead sought to continue his research at the institution's Princeton campus. His work there focused on host immunity. Smith continued to be active at the Rockefeller for nearly 20 years—his efforts interrupted only by mounting frustration with the burden of administrative duties. Smith died on December 19, 1934, while still in the midst of preparing lectures and a book during the final months of his life.
Suppressing the Diseases of Animals and Man is itself the product of an epic research...