William Hinton: Harvard's First Black Professor, Passionate Teacher, Syphilis Researcher
Updated: Feb 17
William Hinton: The Man
William Augustus Hinton was born to two emancipated slaves in Chicago Illinois on December 15, 1883. He faced terrible hardships in an extremely racist age but accomplished some international microbiology fame. A two-time recipient of one of the most prestigious merit-based awards, the Wigglesworth and Hayden Scholarship, Hinton graduated from Harvard Medical School in just three years! However, due to his race, he could not get a medical internship to complete his education. Instead, he volunteered at the Pathological Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Syphilis And It's Treatment
His claim to fame in microbiology is the development of the Hinton Flocculation test and later the Davies-Hinton test for Syphilis. He also wrote a Syphilis textbook and a few research papers. He was a true pioneer of this disease. At the time, Syphilis was thought to be caused by ‘bad blood’. In 1905, Fritz Richard Schaudinn and Erich Hoffmann discovered a spiral like bacteria that later became known at Treponema pallidum, the causative agent of syphilis. The disease progresses in 4 distinct parts.
The first stage usually manifests in a chancre or lesion.
In the secondary stage, rash, fevers and headaches are often experienced.
Symptoms may then disappear in the latent phase.
Finally, if not treated the disease can progress to tertiary syphilis which in addition to scarring and gumma has a slew of other complications including central nervous system disorders, cardiovascular issues and cognition problems.
It is estimated that during WWII over 500,000 syphilis infections were contracted each year in the United States, provoking the need for propaganda not only against the Germans but against the unseen world as well. Up until 1943, to treat syphilis doctors would actually inject arsenic and mercury into syphilis victims. Luckily, in 1943, Mahoney, Arnold and Harris discovered that just a wee bit of penicillin would cure syphilis. And as an added bonus didn't poison the patient either!
Ok, back to Dr. Hinton. He was also the Director of the Laboratory Department of the Boston Dispensary and Chief of the Wassermann Laboratory of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The latter was later renamed in his honor to the “Hinton Laboratory”.
An avid lecturer and professor at Harvard University for nearly 30 years, he was not granted ‘full professorship’ until he was almost retired. In the world of academia, full professorship is a HUGE deal. It’s when you know you’ve made it! Although it can take some time to achieve it (typically 8-10 years, if you get a tenure track position in today's time), taking 30 years to get full professorship is a complete insult to his dedication to Harvard.
For any microbiologist out there who thinks Hinton sounds familiar but you just can’t place your figure on it, it might be from “Mueller-Hinton” agar. While not developed by this Hinton, he did encourage his daughter to pursue a life in research. It was his daughter who helped develop this agar still in use today for antibiotic susceptibility testing and isolating many microbes.
Hinton was a dedicated researcher, so passionate about his work that he was hesitant to reveal his race to many. He turned down a prestigious award from the NAACP and never attended an American Society in Microbiology meeting for fear that, if people knew he was black, his research would be discredited. He said, “Race should never get mixed up in the struggle for human welfare.” What a terrible decision to have to make and defend!
We’ve come a long way since Hinton’s day, but this is still a decision some are making today. As scientists it is easy to hide our faces behind our work as just a name in an author list and to not exist beyond science. However, no one should ever have to feel shame for the way they look. On June 10, 2020 the Ivory Tower #ShutDownSTEM in attempts to eradicate anti-Black racism within the sciences. It was a first step, and hopefully that will lead to real results of acceptance, equality and justice!
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If you liked this article and would like to read more about important black figures in microbiology, click on the links below.
American Society for Microbiology. Early African American Microbiologists: Making Contributions/Overcoming Barriers - Microbe 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQaOzdcl7gM (2017)
Frith, A. J. Syphilis – Its early history and Treatment until Penicillin and the Debate on its Origins. https://jmvh.org/article/syphilis-its-early-history-and-treatment-until-penicillin-and-the-debate-on-its-origins/
Jones, J. William A. Hinton: First African American to Author a Medical Textbook. Black Then https://blackthen.com/william-hinton-first-african-american-author-medical-textbook/ (2019)
McFadden, C., Bergan, B., Lang, F. & Nevils-Karakeci, R. 31 Highly Influential African American Scientists. Interesting Engineering https://interestingengineering.com/31-highly-influential-african-american-scientists (2018)
Mitchell, E. Black History Month: Leaders in Microbiology. http://blog.eoscu.com/blog/black-history-month-leaders-in-microbiology