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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 76.1 (2002) 116-120

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American Association for the History of Medicine

In Memoriam
J. Worth Estes (1934-2000)

The death of J. Worth Estes on 22 October 2000 left the Boston medical community without one of its most active and enthusiastic historians. Worth was one of a vanishing breed of American medical school teachers who balanced his teaching and research career (in pharmacology) with a second one as teacher and writer of medical history (à la Harvey Cushing, Henry Viets, Benjamin Spector, and other Boston medical school teachers of the past).

Worth had two professional interests--medicine and history--both of which developed early in life. So long as he could remember, he often said, he had wanted to be a doctor. His penchant for history can be traced to his early high-school days when he chose as a research assignment to study the life of Ephraim McDowell--an obvious selection for an aspiring physician born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky. Worth's historical and literary bents were encouraged by his father, Joseph Alvie Estes, who as editor of the Blood Horse and the Thoroughbred Record, America's first thoroughbred racing periodical, was in a position to have Worth's maiden voyage into history set into type and printed-- an action he duplicated with the end result of another of Worth's youthful interests, mystery writing.

Worth completed his secondary schooling at Phillips Exeter Academy (1951) and his college education at Harvard (1955). After two years of training in the army (1956-57), he wet his toes in professional medicine as a research assistant at the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1958 before taking the full plunge--obtaining a master's degree in pharmacology at Boston University's medical school in 1963 and the M.D. degree in 1964. An internship in pathology at Massachusetts General was followed by training in hematology at the Boston University Medical Center and in London at Great Ormond Street Hospital. In 1967, he joined BU Medical School's Department of Pharmacology, attaining full professorial [End Page 116] rank in 1981--as "Professor of Pharmacology (History of Pharmacology), Professor of Socio-Medical Sciences."

Of the roughly 160 entries in Worth's bibliography, about two-thirds are articles, book reviews, or monographs relating to medical history; his purely medical writings concerned pharmacology and aspects of hematology. His first published historical article was another look at Ephraim McDowell; this was followed by an article with Paul Dudley White on "The Purple Foxglove and William Withering," a collaboration that had its roots in a summer Worth spent during college in the notable cardiologist's household tutoring the White children.

Worth began to show up at the Countway Library's Rare Books Department on a regular basis in the early 1970s, and a continuous flow of historical publications followed. In addition to writing dozens of articles on a wide variety of medico-historical topics--opium, Shaker medicine, lead poisoning, colonial practice, naval medicine, to cite just a few--Worth also published half a dozen books of historical import: Hall Jackson and the Purple Foxglove (1979); Changing Humors of Portsmouth: The Medical Biography of an American Town, 1623-1983 (1986); Dictionary of Protopharmacology (1990); The Medical Skills of Ancient Egypt (1993); Naval Surgeon: Life and Death at Sea in the Age of Sail (1997); and A Sea of Words: A Lexicon and Companion for Patrick O'Brian's Seafaring Tales (1998).

Worth also served as an editor of two other medical history volumes: Medicine in Colonial Massachusetts, 1620-1820 (1980), and "A Melancholy Scene of Devastation": The Public Response to the 1793 Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic (1997). His essay in the first, "Therapeutic Practice in Colonial New England," was a pioneering interpretation of prescription practices of the time, using the daybooks of three eighteenth-century New England practitioners to determine what drugs American physicians prescribed in those times for their patients and under what circumstances.

Worth was also an active participant in the larger world of medical history, serving as Secretary-Treasurer of the AAHM and...


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