History of Pathology & Cell Biology at Columbia

Alonzo Clark and the Beginnings of American Pathology

Photo of Alonzo Clark, the first chairWe are tracing the history of our department through its Chairs. The first of these, as far as we can tell, was Alonzo Clark who took his degree from P&S in 1835, and then did the obligatory tour of Europe, particularly France and Germany. He learned percussion, the use of the microscope, and the stethoscope. In New York, at Bellevue, he confirmed these principles. American medicine in those days - with occasional exceptions - was not a vibrant enterprise and so it is not surprising that Dr. Clark, though the head of Pathology at P&S, published little. His claim to fame was not to invent new therapies, but to discontinue the useless inheritances of the past. For peritonitis he stopped bleeding and giving mercurials, then an almost universal treatment. He substituted opium.

Alonzo Clark taught physiology and pathology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons (1848-1855). He held the Chair of Practice (in Pathology from 1855-1885 and from 1875 and until 1885 was simultaneously Dean of P&S.  

There are records in the archives that he lent the medical school money and founded a scholarship-the first recipient of which was T. Mitchell Prudden. Dr. Prudden played an enormous role in introducing bacteriology and vaccines to New York and was also a Chair of our department.  He was memorialized in a previous Newsletter (available at http://pathology.columbia.edu/newsletter.shtml)

Like most P&S physicians of the day, Dr Clark was a patrician New Englander. Dr. Clark was fond of aphorisms, some of which still make sense:

'The medical errors of one century constitute the popular faith of the next. "

"Every man 's disease is his personal property."

"You may know the intractability of a disease by its long list of remedies. "

"Symptoms which cannot be readily marshalled into line must be credited to the nerves."

''There is no courtesy in science. "

(From a Memoir to the New York Academy of Medicine 1925. Thanks to Joann Li for compiling the geneology of Pathology Chairs.)

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