Lawless, Theodore K. 1892–1971
Theodore K. Lawless 1892–1971
An internationally known dermatologist whose Chicago practice drew patients from around the country, Dr. Theodore K. Lawless gained wide recognition for his research into the treatment and cure of syphilis, leprosy, sporotrichosis, and a host of other skin diseases. In 1936, while serving as a professor of dermatology and syphilology at Northwestern University Medical School, he helped devise a new treatment for early syphilis known as electropyrexia, which involved the artificial raising of a patient’s temperature followed by injections of therapeutic drugs. He also developed special treatments for skin damaged by arsenical preparations—widely used during the 1920s in the battle against syphilis—and was one of the first physicians to use radium in the treatment of cancer. He remained on the faculty at Northwestern for 16 years, during which time he helped to establish the university’s first medical laboratories.
Over the years, Dr. Lawless’s practice, situated in the heart of the black community on Chicago’s South Side, became one of the largest and most successful in the city. People of all ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds flocked to his office in search of cures and treatments for rare and baffling skin disorders. “Dr. Lawless was a doctor in the old sense of the word,” his former associate, Dr. Harold Thatcher, told Jack Mabley of the Chicago Tribune. “He dealt in humanity. The more people he could see, the more he felt he had accomplished. When doctors were charging $10, $15, he was charging $3. When inflation came, he went up to $5.” In the case of U.S. servicemen and others who he felt could not afford to pay, Lawless provided his services for free.
Lawless also turned his energies to local business ventures. During the 1940s and 1950s he served as the president of the Service Federal Savings and Loan Association, a Chicago bank that helped to finance black businesses, and the 4213 South Michigan Corporation, a local real estate enterprise that worked to promote low-cost housing. By the 1960s he had become so successful that his name appeared on Ebony magazine’s list of America’s 35 Negro millionaires.
The more Lawless prospered, the more philanthropic he became. In addition to donating thousands of dollars to black educational institutions in the South, in 1957 he gave $160,000 to the Beilinson Hospital Center in Israel to help finance the construction of a special dermatology clinic. Seven years later he founded the Science Summer Camp for gifted children at Israel’s Weizmann Institute. He also established and equipped a clinical laboratory and research center at the Provident
Born Theodore Kenneth Lawless, December 6, 1892, in Thibodeaux, LA; died, 1971; son of Alfred (a minister) and Harriet (Dunn) Lawless. Education : Talladega College, B.A., 1914; Northwestern University School of Medicine, M.D., 1919; Northwestern University, MA, 1920; completed graduate work in dermatology at Columbia University, 1920; attended Harvard University, 1921, the University of Paris, 1921-22, the University of Freiburg, 1922-23, and the University of Vienna, 1923-24.
Northwestern University Medical School, Evanston, IL, director of medical laboratories, 1919-20, instructor in dermatology, 1924-41; private practice in dermatology, 1924-71; National Board of Medical Examiners, associate examiner, 1928; Northwestern University, Elizabeth J. Ward Research Fellow, 1928-36; 4213 South Michigan Corporation, Chicago, IL, president, 1945-53; Service Federal Savings and Loan Association, Chicago, president, 1951-53; Provident Hospital, Chicago, senior attending physician in dermatology and syphilology.
Supreme Life Insurance Company, Chicago, director; B’nai B’rith Foundation, director of youth services; Talladega College, chairman of the board of trustees; served on the board of trustees at Fisk University, Roosevelt College, Dillard University, Houston-Tillotson College, Rocky Mountain College, and Ada S. McKinley Settlement House of Chicago.
Memberships: Cook County Prison Welfare Commission; Chicago Board of Health (advisory board); Chicago Civil Liberties Committee; Board of Home Missions of the Congregational Christian Churches (chairman of budget committee); National Advisory Committee on Selection of Physicians, Dentists and Allied Specialists; American Missionaries Association, Division of Higher Education (chairman); American Board of Dermatology; American Medical Association.
Selected awards: Harmon Award in Medicine, 1929; Churchman of the Year Award, 1952; Spingarn Medal, NAACP, 1954; Daniel H. Burnham Award, Roosevelt University, 1963; Distinguished Alumnus Award, United Negro College Fund, 1965; Beatrice Caffrey Youth Service Merit Award, 1970.
Hospital in Chicago, arranged for the construction of a faculty housing complex at Dillard University in New Orleans, and served on the boards of numerous educational, professional, and civic organizations. Among the many honors and awards he received during a half century of service to science and humanity were the 1929 Harmon Award in Medicine and the 1954 Spingarn Medal of the NAACP.
Theodore Kenneth Lawless, the eldest son of a minister, was born on a farm near Thibodeaux, Louisiana, in 1892. During his youth he worked as an assistant to a veterinarian, an experience that strongly influenced his decision to enter medicine. After completing his secondary education at Straight College in New Orleans, which later merged with New Orleans University to become Dillard University, he went on to study at Talladega College in Alabama. He received his B.A. in 1914, then spent two years at the medical school of the University of Kansas before transferring to Northwestern, where he obtained his M.D. in 1919.
After receiving his medical degree, Lawless remained at Northwestern to complete a year of postgraduate study in dermatology and syphilology. From there his studies took him to the Vanderbilt Clinic of Columbia University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard Medical School. He continued his intensive work in dermatology at a number of prestigious universities and hospitals in Europe, including L’Hôpital St. Louis of the University of Paris and the Kaiser Joseph Hospital in Vienna. In 1924 he returned to Chicago to establish his own practice and continue his research work at Northwestern. That same year he became a member of the university’s medical faculty.
Lawless remained at the Northwestern University Medical School for 16 years, teaching dermatology and syphilology and helping to organize the medical school’s first clinical laboratories. During the same period he was a senior attending physician at Provident Hospital, an associate examiner in dermatology on the National Board of Medical Examiners, and served on the Chicago Board of Health. He also traveled abroad to work as a consultant at the Geneva Community Hospital in Switzerland.
In addition to his groundbreaking report on the treatment of early syphilis through electrically-induced fever, which appeared in 1936, Lawless wrote on the diagnosis of sporotrichosis, a chronic fungus infection of the skin and superficial lymph nodes; tinea sycosis, a parasitic infection of the lip; tularemia, or rabbit fever, a bacterial disease transmitted by rodents or contaminated water; and the treatment of skin damaged during injections of arsphenamine and neoarsphenamine, then the treatment of choice for syphilis.
Despite Lawless’s international reputation as a researcher and diagnostician, his tenure at Northwestern was marked by racial prejudice and discrimination. “He was merely tolerated and not embraced by the hospital he served,” wrote Dr. W. Montague Cobb in a biography of Lawless published in the Journal of the National Medical Association. Moreover, Cobb suggested, Lawless’s brilliance as a physician may have contributed to his downfall. Once, Cobb wrote, “Accidentally asked for his opinion on a case, [Lawless] correctly diagnosed the trouble, but unknowingly trod on sacred toes. A cool atmosphere developed and presently as an instructor in dermatology he was assigned no students.” Lawless was eventually named assistant to the chief of dermatology, but left the university in 1941 after failing to receive a promotion he felt he deserved.
According to Mabley, it was also discrimination that prevented Lawless from renting an office on Chicago’s famous “Loop.” In 1937, after a series of frustrating and demeaning experiences on the north side of the city, he moved his practice south. He remained there for the next 44 years. “I have never in my life seen such a sight,” Chicago chemist Percy Julian told Mabley, recalling a visit to Lawless’s office in 1951. “A line of about 200 feet long extended from the door of his waiting rooms, which were full, to the street—sufferers waiting to be treated. More than 90 percent of them were white faces.” According to Dr. Harold Thatcher, who took over Lawless’s practice after his death, Lawless saw patients at all hours of the day, often without appointments.
In addition to operating a lucrative medical practice, Theodore Lawless became active in Chicago insurance, banking, and real estate enterprises. Before long, he had amassed a huge personal fortune. But the wealthier he grew, the more convinced he became of the need to help others who were not as fortunate and to repay those who had helped him on his long and difficult journey. Over the years he donated considerable sums to black educational institutions, including Dillard University, where a chapel was established in his name, and Roosevelt University, where his generosity inspired the construction of a chemical laboratory and an auditorium.
Lawless provided scholarship money for black students and sponsored African medical students who wanted to attend American medical schools. He was also extremely generous in his gifts to Jewish causes and to medical and educational organizations in Israel. During his childhood, he once explained, a Jewish peddlar in New Orleans had been extremely kind to his family. Later, a Jewish physician helped to open doors for him at Columbia, and when he was preparing his paperwork to study abroad, 11 of the 12 letters of recommendation he obtained were from Jewish doctors.
In addition to donating $160,000 toward the construction of a dermatology wing at Beilinson Hospital near Tel Aviv, Lawless spearheaded the development of a science camp at the country’s Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovoth, Israel, and provided funds that enabled some 50 Israeli children to attend it. During the 1960s he worked for the Israel bond drive. A lifelong bachelor, he devoted all of his time and energy to his work and his philanthropic interests. In presenting Dr. Lawless with the 39th Spingam Medal of the NAACP in 1954, Dr. Buell Gallagher, president of the College of the City of New York, praised him, as quoted in the Chicago Sun Times, for his “notable contributions to the health, enlightenment, and welfare of his fellow citizens of all races, faiths, and classes.”
Chicago Daily Tribune, October 10, 1957.
Chicago Sun Times, July 3, 1954; January 16, 1963.
Chicago Tribune, April 6, 1970; May 2, 1971; November 29, 1976.
Jet, October 16, 1989.
Journal of the National Medical Association, July 1970, pp. 310-12; September 1971, p. 405.
Philadelphia Inquirer, July 26, 1970.
New York Times, June 15, 1954; May 3, 1971.
—Caroline B. D. Smith
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