The American pathologist, bacteriologist, and medical educator William Henry Welch (1850-1934) established a firm foundation for the development of the medical sciences in the United States.
William H. Welch was born on April 8, 1850, in Norfolk, Conn. He entered Yale at the age of 16, where the study of the classics was his major interest. After graduating in 1870, he taught Greek and Latin in Norwich.
Although his father and grandfather were physicians, Welch had little interest in medicine while at Yale. Gradually his attitude changed, and in 1871 he became an apprentice to his father and then a student at Yale's scientific school, where he learned basic science. In 1872 he entered the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, graduating in 1875. After an internship at New York's Bellevue Hospital, Welch went to Germany to study pathology and physiology and had a first contact with the rising science of bacteriology. When he returned to the United States, he established the first laboratory for pathology in the United States, at the Bellevue Hospital Medical School. On a second trip to Europe, in 1884, Welch concentrated specifically on bacteriology and became one of the earliest proponents of this science in the United States.
In 1884 Welch was appointed professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins Hospital and Medical School in Baltimore, which was then under construction. When the medical school opened in 1893, Welch was appointed dean of the medical faculty, a position he held until 1898. His selection of department heads exerted a powerful influence on the modern direction in which medicine in the United States was to go. Equally important in this regard were his many positions in organizations, including service as president of the Board of Scientific Directors of the Rockefeller Institute (1901-1933), president of the American Medical Association (1910-1911), and president of the National Academy of Sciences (1913-1916).
Medicine was also public health to Welch, and a great dedication to this area characterized his life. He was, for example, president of the Maryland State Board of Health (1898-1922), and he was the leading figure in the establishment of the important School of Hygiene and Public Health at Johns Hopkins, of which he was director (1918-1926).
At the age of 76 Welch accepted a new chair in medical history at Johns Hopkins and guided the development of the Institute of the History of Medicine. Through his efforts a fine medical library was also established, which was dedicated in 1929 and bears his name.
Welch's greatest factual contribution to medicine was the discovery of the bacillus causing gas gangrene, first reported in 1892. Far more important than such specific discoveries was his far-reaching impact on medicine, expressed through a general emphasis on the new sciences like bacteriology and through brilliant leadership. He died in Baltimore on April 30, 1934.
Further Reading on William Henry Welch
Walter C. Burket edited Welch's Papers and Addresses (3 vols., 1920). The most complete biography of Welch is Simon and James Thomas Flexner, William Henry Welch and the Heroic Age of American Medicine (1941). Donald Fleming, William H. Welch and the Rise of Modern Medicine (1954), is a popular account.
Additional Biography Sources
Fleming, Donald, William H. Welch and the rise of modern medicine, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, 1954.