Hinton, William Augustus 1883–1959

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William Augustus Hinton 18831959

Physician, educator, author

At a Glance


William Hinton overcame poverty and racial prejudice in the medical profession to create a highly respected test for syphilis detection in the 1920s. His test greatly improved screening for the disease, reducing the number of false positives generated by previous tests that resulted in needless treatment. An excellent teacher as well, Hinton also became the first black to be named a professor at Harvard University Medical School.

The son of former slaves freed after the Civil War, Hinton grew up in Kansas and was the youngest student to ever graduate from his high school. His familys poverty and lack of education did not deplete his own will to succeed, largely because his parents exhibited a strong belief in the importance of equal opportunity for everyone. Hinton had to leave the University of Kansas after two years so that he could earn money for further studies, but in 1902, he entered Harvard University. After graduating from Harvard in 1905, he had to put off his entry to medical school, once again due to financial need. Harvard offered him a scholarship reserved for black students, but he refused it.

While teaching at schools in Nashville, Tennessee, and Langston, Oklahoma, during the next four years, Hinton took courses in bacteriology and physiology at the University of Chicago during the summer. He finally entered Harvard Medical School in 1909, and earned his medical degree in only three years. While there, he won the prestigious Wigglesworth and Hayden Scholarships, two awards open to the entire student body. Eager to use his degree to treat needy patients in the southern United States, Hinton was thwarted by his color when Boston schools refused him an internship.

Hinton got his first job after medical school teaching serological techniques at the Wassermann Laboratory, which was then part of Harvard. During this time he also worked as an assistant in the department of pathology of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He used his training in serology to develop a new blood analysis for diagnosing syphilis. Hinton became proficient at syphilis diagnosis and soon wrote his first scientific paper on it, with Roger I. Lee. The paper was one of more than 25 of his works that appeared in scientific journals during his career.

After establishing a reputation as an expert on the topic, Hinton was asked to write a chapter on the Wassermann reaction in a leading textbook of preventive medicine. His growing skill then led to his appointment as director of the laboratory department of the Boston Dispensary in 1915.

At a Glance

Born William Augustus Hinton, December 15, 1883, in Chicago, IL; died of diabetes, August 7, 1959, in Canton, MA; son of Augustus (a farmer, railroad porter, and former slave) and Maria (a farmer and former slave) Hinton; married Ada Hawes, 1909 (died, 1958); children: Anne Hinton Jones, Dr. Jane Hinton. Education: Attended University of Kansas, 1900-02; Harvard College, B.S., 1905; Harvard Medical School, M.D., 1912.

Physician, teacher, writer. Massachusetts General Hospital, Pathological Laboratory, voluntary assistant, 1912-15; laboratory department, Boston Dispensary, director, 1915; Wassermann Laboratory, Massachusetts Department of Public Health, chief, 1915; Harvard Medical School, faculty member in bacteriology, immunology, preventive medicine, and hygiene, 1923-59, professor, 1949-50, professor Emeritus, 1950-53. U.S. Public Health Service, consultant on venereal disease, 1935; Massachusetts School for Crippled Children, consultant, 1946-49; lecturer, Simmons College, Harvard School of Public Health, and Tufts College School of Medicine and Dentistry. Author of Syphilis and Its Treatment, Macmillan, 1936.

Member: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Medical Association, American Social Hygiene Association (life member), American Society of Clinical Pathologists, Massachusetts Medical Society (fellow), Society of American Bacteriologists.

That same year he became chief of the Wassermann Laboratory, which had become part of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

At the Boston Dispensary, Hinton established one of the first schools for training medical technicians in the United States. Under his leadership the Wassermann Laboratory became the standard for other laboratories to emulate. In recognition of Hintons skills, Harvard Medical School made him an assistant in preventive medicine and hygiene in 1923. The next year Hinton was promoted to instructor in that subject, as well in bacteriology and immunology.

While continuing to work at the Wassermann Laboratory in the 1920s, he developed and perfected a diagnostic test for syphilis based on flocculation, a process that precipitates loose clumps of material out of a solution. The test was hailed for its speed, ease of use, and repeatability. Since treatment for syphilis at the time was extended, painful, and hazardous, a test like Hintons that could avoid wrongful diagnoses was a boon to medicine. By 1934, the U.S. Public Health Service named Hintons flocculation test the best technique available for diagnosing syphilis. The test would remain in use for many decades before being replaced by more advanced measures. With John A. V. Davies, Hinton also developed a method for detecting syphilis in the nervous system known as the Davies-Hinton test.

In 1936, Hinton disseminated his knowledge in a textbook on syphilis diagnosis and treatment that became a classic in medical literature. He continued to manage a heavy work load that included overseeing testing at the Boston Dispensary, teaching at Harvard, Tufts College, and Simmons College, and serving as a consultant to the U.S. Public Health Service on venereal disease. Despite losing a leg in a car accident in 1940, Hinton continued his teaching and testing endeavors almost without letup. He was named a lifetime member of the American Social Hygiene Association in 1948 as a distinguished scientist, leading serologist, and public health bacteriologist.

One of the greatest moments of Hintons life came in 1949, when he was named clinical professor at Harvard Medical School. He was the first black to be offered such an honor at the school. After retiring from his professorship in 1950, Hinton continued lecturing at Harvard and remained as physician-in-chief of the department of clinical laboratories of the Boston Dispensary. Failing eyesight and strength due to a diabetic condition made it necessary for him to retire completely from active service in 1953. By that year his laboratory was assessing approximately 2,000 specimens for syphilis every day, as well as performing tests for rabies and other diseases.

Near the end of his life, Hinton willed his $75,000 in savings to be put into a special scholarship fund for Harvard graduate students. He said that the fund was a memorial to his parents and the exemplary ideals of conduct that they passed on to him. Hinton named the fund the Dwight D. Eisenhower Scholarship Fund, to honor the president whom he felt had made great strides in providing equal opportunity employment during his administration. When referring to the scholarship in his book, Mandate for Change, Eisenhower wrote, I could not recall having been given a personal distinction that had touched me more deeply.

Despite the tremendous hurdles in his path to higher education and an injury that could have greatly curtailed his career, Hinton worked relentlessly throughout his life to make his mark on medical history. His skill in the laboratory was matched by his teaching prowess, which according to the Harvard University Gazette, invited the student to learn and to inquire in an atmosphere free of academic protocol. A modest man as well, Hinton once declined the NAACP Spingarn Medal for significant contributions because he felt that he should achieve more before receiving it. His achievements clearly show that he had deserved that award and all the other accolades bestowed on him.



Eisenhower, Dwight D., Mandate for Change, Doubleday, 1963.


Harvard Alumni Bulletin, July 1959, p. 11.

Harvard University Gazette, July 16, 1960, pp. 243-44.

JNMA, 1957, pp. 427-28.

Journal of Social Hygiene, April 1948, pp. 168-69.

New England Journal of Medicine, September 18, 1952, p. 12.

Ed Decker