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Theobald Smith

Born 1859
Died 1934

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American pathologist, born July 31, 1859, Albany, New York; died December 10, 1934, New York City.

Biography of Theobald Smith

Theobald Smith was the most distinguished early American microbiologist and probably the leading comparative pathologist in the world. Smith's discovery (1889) of the protozoan that causes Texas cattle fever (species Pyrosoma bigeminum [now called Babesia bigemina]) and his demonstration (1889-93) of its transmission by the cattle tick paved the way for control of malaria, yellow fever, and other insect-borne diseases. Smith also was the first to clearly differentiate the bovine from human tubercle bacilli, facilitating the work of Robert Koch.

The son of German immigrants, Theobald Smith was born in Albany, New York, and educated at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., where he received the Ph.D. degree with honours in 1881, and Albany Medical School, where he headed the graduating class of 1883. He recognized, however, that his interests lay more in scientific investigation than in medicine. With the help of a friend, the microscopist Simon H. Gage (born 1851) he obtained an assistantship with Daniel Elmer Salmon (1850-1914), chief of the veterinary division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington. Here, his developing enthusiasm for the study of infectious diseases was stimulated by the discoveries of his peers Robert Koch and Paul Ehrlich, in Germany. Hawing grown up in a German-speaking home, Theobald Smith, originally registered as Theobald Schmitt, had no problems reading the original reports of Robert Koch and Paul Ehrlich. From 1886 to 1895

Six months later he became inspector of the new Bureau of Animal Industry, established by Congress under Salmon’s charge to combat bovine pleuropneumonia, glanders, infectious disease of swine, and Texas cattle fever. Smith taught himself Koch’s culture-plate methods and improved on them. Smith also was the first to clearly differentiate the bovine from human tubercle bacilli, facilitating Koch's work.

Theobald Smith became the pre-eminent pioneer in American microbiology. In 1889, he discovered the protozoan parasite, Babesia, responsible for Texas Fever of cattle, and the role of ticks in its transmission. He was responsible for identifying the causes of several other animal diseases and for raising important public health issues, by demonstrating the contamination of the Hudson river by faecal bacteria. Smith declined the position of director of The Rockefeller Institute, at its founding in 1901.

Smith’s international recognition was hastened by his publications in German journals. In 1891 he was promoted to chief of the division of animal pathology of the Bureau of Animal Industry, but Daniel Elmer Salmon sought unduly to divert credit for Smith’s work to himself and to other veterinarians. For example, Frederick Lucius Kilborne (1858-1936), superintendent of the experimental farm, was over generously made co-author of the Texas fever monograph.

Smith taught at Columbian University, Washington, D.C., now George Washington University, and was professor of comparative pathology at Harvard University from 1896 to 1915.

After working for several years in Washington and at Harvard Medical School, he joined the Princeton laboratories of the Rockefeller Institute in 1915, where he remained as director of the Department of Animal Pathology until his official retirement in 1929. He was succeeded by Carl Ten Broeck (born 1885), a long-time associate. Smith continued working at Princeton as member emeritus of the Rockefeller Institute.

    Great discoveries, which give a new direction to currents of thought and research, are not, as a rule, gained by the accumulation of vast quantities of figures and statistics. These are apt to stifle and asphyxiate and they usually follow rather than precede discovery. The great discoveries are due to the eruption of genius into a closely related field, and the transfer of the precious knowledge there found to his own domain.
    Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, 1915, 172: 121.

    Research is fundamentally a state of mind involving continual re-examination of the doctrines and axioms upon which current thought and action are based. It is, therefore, critical of existing practices.
    American Journal of Medical Sciences, 1929, 178: 741.

    The joy of research must be found in doing since every other harvest is uncertain.
    Letter to Dr. E. B. Krumbhaar, October 11, 1933.
    Quoted in Journal of Bacteriology, 1934, 27: 19.

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