Celebrating 150 Years of Excellence in Science

William Henry Welch

1913-1917 NAS President

The next president, elected in 1913, was William Henry Welch, M.D., (1850–1934), undoubtedly the most distinguished member of his profession in the country at the time. He came of a long-standing medical family but his early interest as a student was in the classics. On graduating from Yale in 1870, he decided to apprentice in medicine with his father and soon concluded that American medicine was very backward in its use of science. As a result, he decided to formalize his education by obtaining an M.D. degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York (1875) and interning at Bellevue. He then spent two years in Europe gaining direct experience from the advanced clinics there, specializing in pathology (1876–78).

On returning he began to teach at Bellevue during the period between 1878 and 1884, but hoped for a position at the Johns Hopkins University. This finally came in 1884 when Dr. John S. Billings, who was organizing the university hospital, asked him to become professor of pathology. He now found himself in very stimulating company and continued to rise ever higher in his profession. He was one of the key individuals who helped create the Johns Hopkins Medical School and Hospital, which began operation in 1889. It soon gained an outstanding reputation as the model for others to follow because of its emphasis on the scientific aspects of medicine, as well as for the quality of its clinical work.

As a bachelor, Welch had much freedom to travel and greatly enjoyed participating broadly in the international scene. He was trapped in Europe for a full month in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I.

One of Welch's many meritorious side tasks was to head the advisory committee for the development and staffing of The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research when it was created in New York City at the turn of the century through the benefactions of John D. Rockefeller, Senior. In fact, Welch exerted strong guidance at both institutions, selecting one of his young former students, Dr. Simon Flexner (1863–1946), noted for his involvement in fundamental medical research, as the first director of the new Rockefeller Institute.

Simon Flexner
Flexner (pictured right) was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and received an M.D. at the University there in 1889. He was much interested in the scientific side of medicine and was to an extent self-taught at this early stage. He next went to the newly opened medical school of the Johns Hopkins University to study pathology where he was soon recognized as an unusually gifted investigator and was invited to join the staff. In this new environment, he began to follow serious epidemics and sought preventative vaccines. For example he searched for a vaccine for cerebrospinal meningitis and eventually succeeded. He identified a strain of bacillus that plagued the city of Manila in the Philippines. He struggled very hard to find a vaccine for poliomyelitis, which continuously emerged in portions of the United States. Unfortunately he selected a very obdurate form of the virus in his experimental work, or we might have had an effective vaccine for polio in the 1920s. He did, however, lay the groundwork for such research, which was finally successful in the 1950s. Flexner agreed to take the post at the new institute under the condition that the founders provide funds for a research hospital. His personal research there continued on the quest for vaccines for significant diseases.

He was joined at the Institute in the study of epidemics by the very ingenious Japanese scientist Dr. Hideyo Noguchi (1876–1928) (pictured right). The latter died of yellow fever in West Africa while studying the origin of that disease. One of his most notable discoveries was the existence of live spirochetes in the brain of a deceased individual who had suffered an advanced form of syphilis. In 1976 Dr. Frederick Seitz and his wife were invited to a ten day gala in Japan devoted to a celebration of the centennial of Noguchi's birth. He is regarded there as the first distinguished Japanese scientist to become involved in Western medicine in a truly creative way. Members of the Japanese royal family served as friendly hosts for part of the extended occasion.

This was a very active period of technological development for United States with the result that the Academy was called upon to offer help on some major problems, including some that emerged during the creation of the Panama Canal, a task that had baffled the French engineers in 1889 for a variety of good reasons. On another frontier, a question arose as to whether the seal herds that gathered in Alaska, which the United States had purchased  from Russia in 1867, were being properly managed. The Academy was called in as advisor and helped stabilize the situation by introducing regulatory controls of the harvesting.

World War I: The National Research Council
When World War I broke out in August of 1914, President Wilson became  personally concerned that some as yet unforeseen event might cause the United States to enter it. As a result, he decided in 1915 that our country should take steps toward “preparedness” to begin to cover the possibility of involvement. He discussed the matter somewhat privately with a number of prominent citizens and professional groups and on the whole received enthusiastic backing.

George Ellery Hale, who was foreign secretary of the Academy at the time, responded to President Wilson's charge with much enthusiasm and, with the support of colleagues, formed a committee in 1916 to review the topic in depth. Since he realized that many of the problems that might arise in wartime would be of great interest to the professional engineering community, Hale formed a close link with the Engineering Foundation, a fairly centralized organization that served some of the interests of the engineering community as well as other engineering-related organizations. Using private money at first,
provided in significant part by the Engineering Foundation, the Academy began to analyze its advisory structure and policies. It quickly realized that it could not be effective on the scale that would be necessary in a now highly industrialized world if it limited membership on specialized advisory committees or teams to members of the Academy, although many of the latter who possessed much expert knowledge and qualities of leadership could be indispensable. It would need to involve many individuals well outside the Academy's membership if it were to provide broadly useful advice.

In brief, the Academy needed an auxiliary organization that drew advisors of many stripes from many sources. As a result, it created in 1916 the National Research Council, an advisory structure whose areas of interest not only included those of the principal professions of the Academy members, but also encompassed fields much closer to ongoing technology that did not have representative experts within the membership. It follows that the number of non-members who would be active as advisors within the National Research Council could be expected to outweigh the number who were members, as proved to be the case. Hale accepted the chairmanship of the new organization.

The new addition to the Academy's structure was greeted with enthusiasm by scientists and engineers as well as by segments of the medical profession. It rapidly became a very active organization, first before our entry into World War I in April 1917, but especially after entrance. In the meantime Hale, who had labored very strenuously to achieve success, had kept President Wilson informed of the actions  that were taking place. The latter was very pleased and offered a few suggestions concerning the plans. The President eventually (March 1918) issued an executive order making the National Research Council
an official component of the Academy, with permanent status.

Continue reading next chapter: Charles Doolittle Walcott

Return to: A Selection of Highlights from the History of the National Academy of Sciences, 1863 - 2005

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