History of Pathology & Cell Biology at Columbia

T. Mitchell Prudden and the First American Use of Vaccine

Dr. Prudden was a graduate of P&S and the first Chairman of the Pathology Department after it separated from the Department of Medicine in 1893.  In 1878, after graduating from P&S, he went to Europe where he learned the new science of bacteriology, which he brought back to a laboratory funded by the P&S Alumni Association. After returning to Germany in 1885 to take Robert Koch’s course in microbiology, Dr. Prudden founded the first bacteriology course for medical students in New York and probably in America. In 1892, he was instrumental in introducing microbiology to the New York Board of Health to screen for cholera and for diphtheria.

When Emile Roux in Paris created the first large scale antitoxin by inoculating horses with diphtheria toxin - and showed that it controlled the disease if given early enough - Prudden petitioned the Board of Estimate for money to buy horses. They refused - it was 1894 and Tammany Hall controlled the city. Patronage was their major concern, not the public welfare. Dr. Prudden resigned from the Board of Health. He and his colleague Herman Biggs bought their own horses in December of 1894 and made antitoxin. They launched a successful newspaper campaign in the New York Herald for public funding.  The horse serum from Drs. Prudden and Biggs was the first effective treatment of an infectious disease in America.  Dr. Prudden was one of the great forces for a national bureau of health. He felt that it should be staffed by experienced scientists and not “the flotsam and jetsam of the political ocean, from which too often strange, uncouth things are stranded in offices where malfeasance may mean death to some, disease to many.”

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