William Thomas Councilman
Biography of William Thomas Councilman
William Thomas Councilman was born on a farm near Baltimore, and he always regarded it as fortunate that his early years were passed in such an environment. He was the son of Dr. John T. Councilman (1815-1890), a rural physician. William Thomas went to local schools and he attended the St. Johns College in Annapolis. He left at age 16 and for the next six years "led an independent existence, raised side whiskers, considered himself a very ripe individual and and did pretty much as he chose"
A country boy in medicine
At thee age of 22 Councilman decided to follow in the footsteps of his his father and entered medical school at the University of Maryland. This was no better nor worse than most schools of the period, the two-year course consisting largely of a series of lectures. The dissecting room, however, provided the contact with nature for which he yearned. The farm provided an excellent opportunity to satisfy his curiosity and, beginning with the mole, he proceeded to make a comparative study of the skulls of all available animals until the collection finally threatened to throw him out of his bedroom. The collecgtion was sold to a bone collector and he went back to the lectures. In March of 1878 he attained the degree "qualifying him to exercise the art of medicine."
On September 12, 1876, his father heard the address by Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) at the opening of the Johns Hopkins University, which started with young men, had a laboratory and was unhampered by tradition. Councilman went there on a fellowship to work with the physiologist Henry Newell Martin in biology, studying the problems of elementary experimental physiology. Here he wrote his first paper «Inflammation of the cornea» and became interested in pathology. For this he was given a prize of one hundred dollars. he was tempted to take up biology as a career, but after short periods of medical service at Baltimore’s Marine Hospital and Bayview Asylum, his main interest changed to histological pathology.
Training i Europe
In order to pursue this subject, Councilman in 1880 went to Europe for intensive training in pathology, working in Vienna under men who had been brought up in the tradition of Karl Freiherr von Rokitansky (1804-1878). He also worked for a considerable time under Friedrich Daniel von Recklinghausen (1833-1910) in the new school at Strassburg, and with Julius Friedrich Cohnheim (1839-1884) and Carl Weigert (1845-1904) in Leipzig. Finally he spent some time with Hans Chiari (1851-1916) in Prague, a man of his own age whom he had first met in Vienna.
Councilman returned to Baltimore in 1883, engaging himself in various tasks. He helped John Shaw Billings (1838-1913) prepare his National Medical Dictionary and performed autopsies at Bayview where for one year he served as the coroner's physician to the city. In 1886 he became associate in pathology under at Johns Hopkins, joining William Henry Welch (1850-1934) and the early group of workers in the newly erected pathological laboratory which was to form a part of a great hospital still in slow process of erection.
Councilman then spent another year in Europe before the opening of Johns Hopkins Medical School. In 1892 he was appointed Shattuck professor of pathological anatomy at Harvard, the first outsider ever to be so appointed. He soon proved himself a highly competent investigator and an exceptionally able teacher, in both the classroom and the several hospitals with which he became associated. In 1890, together with Frank Burr Mallory (1862-1941) and Richard Mills Pearce (1874-1939), he brought out a comprehensive monograph on diphteria. At the same time he developed an intense interest in cerebrospinal meningitis and chronic nephritis and published several important studies on these diseases with Mallory and John Homer Wright (1869-1928).
From his farm upbringing he was always interested in plants and in fact planted shrubs and flowers around the Brigham Hospital and was a close friend of the director of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. He was one of the earliest of the conservationists and wrote a number of papers on plants, and had a bulldog called Pasco who was always at his side. He was emeritus from 1922.
Councilman admired tradition but was also wary of it, commenting that the reason for Johns Hopkin’s initial success and enthusiasm was the total lack of it. He said, «tradition may be very important, but can also be extremely hampering as well and whether or not tradition is of very much value, I have never been certain». «It is an important thing that people be happy in their work, and if work does not bring happiness there is something wrong».
A techer honoured
Councilman was widely honored. He was the principal founder and first president of the American Association of Pathologist and Bacteriologists, and in that capacity greatly stimulated the development of pathology in the United States.
He described as a delightful, informal teacher who commented: «I think lecturing is an intellectual stimulus and comparatively harmless to the audience . . . . it does not really matter much what the lecturer says».