top of page
  • Writer's pictureJulie G - Microbigal!

William Hinton: Harvard's First Black Professor, Passionate Teacher, Syphilis Researcher

Updated: Nov 12, 2022

Good afternoon class! As part of our Black History Month lecture series, Hugo was supposed to present today on William Hinton, but he got so nervous he's not in today. But he sent in this report and some posters that I'll present to him. I'd like to introduce you to a fellow microbiology teacher who was as passionate as I am about educating young minds about the wonderful world of us (well, to the Giants!).

William Augustus Hinton was born in Chicago, Illinois to two emancipated slaves on December 15, 1883.

Larry: Wait, what are slaves?

Xi: Do you remember Ms. Rhiza's class on Zombie ants and how the cordyceps made the ant do its bidding? There was a time when some humans thought they could make another group of humans do their work against their will based on the color of their skin, it was a terrible time.

He faced terrible hardships in an extremely racist age but accomplished 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. Some giants have some very silly ideas about their outside layers and the shapes and colors and have treated their fellow humankind differently, and often horribly, based on just that, silly humans!

Anna: Do you mean that just because a person had a different color on the outside, they were treated differently? That sounds crazy!

Xi: Yes, unfortunately, but luckily there were many who persevered and continue to fight against such discrimination, like William Augustus Hinton!

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 as Treponema pallidum, the causative agent of syphilis. The disease progresses in 4 distinct parts.

  1. The first stage usually manifests in a chancre or lesion.

  2. In the secondary stage, rash, fevers, and headaches are often experienced.

  3. Symptoms may then disappear in the latent phase.

  4. 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 thousands of 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!

Class: Ewwwwwwwwww!! Why did Hugo put those in gross pictures?!

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 Giant academia, a full professorship is a HUGE deal. It’s when a human in science knows they’ve made it! Although it can take some time to achieve it (typically 8-10 years, if they get a tenure track position in today's time), taking 30 years to get a full professorship is a complete insult to his dedication to Harvard, but he persevered and became a role model to many scientists.

The name Hinton may sound familiar for anyone who studies microbiology, the “Mueller-Hinton” agar (a gelatin-like product made primarily from the red algae Gelidium and Gracilaria that the Giants use to study microbes). While not developed by this Hinton, he did encourage his daughter to pursue a life in research. That's right, William Hinton's daughter became a scientist and 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!

The Giants have come a long way since William Augustus Hinton’s day, but there is still a lot of struggle with racism and unequal opportunities in science for many minority populations today. Microbes don't discriminate, and neither should the Giants! No one should ever have to feel shame for the way they look. On June 10, 2020, the Ivory Tower #ShutDownSTEM attempted to eradicate anti-Black racism within the sciences. It was the first step, and hopefully, that will lead to real results of acceptance, equality, and justice!

Next time you see Hugo, tell him how much you enjoyed his posters and report, and hopefully, he will feel confident enough to present to you, his friends, next time! If you have any thoughts about this topic, or if we missed something please let us know by leaving a comment or sending us an email, we'd love to hear from you!

If you liked this article and would like to read more about important black figures in microbiology, click on the links below.

Black Lives Matter In Microbiology A Series on Famous Black Scientists and Famous Microbiologists


American Society for Microbiology. Early African American Microbiologists: Making Contributions/Overcoming Barriers - Microbe 2017. (2017)

Frith, A. J. 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 (2019)

McFadden, C., Bergan, B., Lang, F. & Nevils-Karakeci, R. 31 Highly Influential African American Scientists. Interesting Engineering (2018)

Mitchell, E. Black History Month: Leaders in Microbiology.

32 views0 comments
bottom of page