History of Pathology & Cell Biology at Columbia

The Early Days of Columbia Pathology

By Richard Kessin, PhD, Professor of Pathology and Cell Biology

Photo of Dr. Richard KessinReviewing the history of our department from the 19th century could lead to a list of names, but in creating the timeline you see above and from what I know of 19th century biology and medicine (forgive me, I was a history major), several trends emerge. The first has to do with the emergence of American medicine and science and how closely it followed Europe. Rudolf Virchow (1856) wrote omnis cellula e cellula - all cells from preexisting cells - a thought on which pathology and cell biology depends. We also depend on the germ theory of disease, which evolved in the same period. These ideas penetrated the United States slowly until, after the Civil War, many young physicians left the United States to study in French and German universities and brought them back.

The departmental Newsletter has done a series of vignettes on important pathologists, including the early Chairs of our Department. The even earlier Chairs of Anatomy, whose history we share, are covered by Mike Gershon in the next article. Alonzo Clark (1847-1883) was the first Pathology Professor of whom we have much knowledge. His career spanned a revolution in medicine including the germ theory of disease and major advances in histology and microscopy, but he is not much remembered.  He probably did not have a large department - perhaps only an assistant, according to our archivist Steve Novak. Yet the next Chairs, Francis Delafield and T. Mitchell Prudden played an enormous role in American medicine and Public Health.  Delafield wrote A Manual of Physical Diagnosis and with his student, Prudden, he coauthored A Handbook of Pathological Anatomy and Histology.  Both studied in Europe, but Prudden worked with Robert Koch and brought the science of bacteriology - and the germ theory of disease - to New York.

Prudden was appointed special assistant in Pathology at P&S in 1878. It was the first full time appointment in Pathology in the country. He later reminisced: Finally there appeared on the horizon in this country a few anomalous individuals who cherished the notion that the science of disease, even in its etiological and morphological aspects alone, was broad and deep enough to command the exclusive attention of its devotees.

In 1885, at P&S, Prudden taught the first American course in bacteriology, funded by the P&S Club. He had a leading role in introducing the germ theory of disease to New York and the United States.  In 1894 Prudden was attending a medical conference in Budapest when he learned that horse antisera against diphtheria toxin could arrest the course of diphtheria in children. He wired to New York asking his colleagues to buy horses and start to make diphtheria and tetanus vaccines. To get them used, he, Herman Biggs and others started the New York Board of Health.   He wrote many books on pathology and bacteriology, some with Delafield. It was Prudden, who gave a start, in 1906, to Surgical Pathology, which has figured so heavily in the Department’s history. His biography, available on the web, is worth reading. He retired in 1909 and a portrait, currently hanging outside Alumni auditorium, was commissioned by his students and colleagues.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons allied with the Presbyterian Hospital in 1910, but were not in the same location. The College was near the present Roosevelt Hospital and the medical school was across town so pathologists had to travel back and forth. It was not until 1928 that the present campus was built. By that time, another important event had occurred - the arrival of women, including the extraordinary Dr. Virginia Kneeland Frantz, as elegantly described by Heidi Rotterdam later in this booklet.
During the interwar and postwar periods, perhaps the most important figure was Arthur Purdy Stout, one of the founders of surgical pathology. A previous history written by Dr. Raffael Lattes and also published in 1997 contains much information on Dr. Stout and others from that period. Dr Stout’s autobiography, published in 1997, describes Pathology in the 1930’s and 40’s and his personal experiences-particularly a haunting trip through Nazi Germany.

Finally, it is important to note that Pathology was practiced in a number of clinical departments and it was not until 1960 that it was unified when Donald McKay became Chairman. The Department became an excellent clinical provider, but did not support much basic research, until 25 years ago, when the power of cell biology and neuroscience arrived in force.

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