Councilman, William Thomas

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Councilman, William Thomas

(b. Pikesville, Maryland, 1 January 1854; d. York Village, Maine, 26 May 1933)


His father, Dr. John T. Councilman, was a farmer and rural physician, and William Thomas was himself born on a small farm. He attended local schools, St. Johns College in Annapolis, and the school of medicine at the University of Maryland. He graduated with the M.D. degree in 1878 after completing the standard two-year course. Johns Hopkins University had just opened and he made important acquaintances there, in particular the physiologist Henry Newell Martin, who invited him into his department informally for study of problems in elementary experimental physiology.

After short periods of medical service at Baltimore’s Marine Hospital and Bay View Asylum, Councilman went abroad for intensive training in pathology in Vienna, Leipzig, Prague, and Strasbourg; he studied with Hans Chiari, Julius Cohnheim, Carl Weigert, and F. D. von Recklinghausen. He returned to Baltimore in 1883 to take a fellowship at Johns Hopkins Medical School. There he advanced rapidly, becoming associate in pathology under William Henry Welch in 1886, and soon attained the rank of associate professor.

His first significant research, after minor publications in other fields, was on malaria. His paper, “Contribution to the Pathology of Malarial Fever,” published in 1885 in collaboration with the bacteriologist A. C. Abbott (another Welch associate) enhanced his growing reputation. In 1891—after a period of intensive research, with H. A. Lafleur as coauthor, and under the stimulus of Hopkins’ leading light William Osler—he published a monograph on “Amoebic Dysentery,” which was immediately recognized as the most authoritative treatise yet printed on the subject. In covering its gross and microscopic anatomical characters meticulously, Councilman and Lafleur established amoebic dysentery as an independent disease entity.

In 1892 Councilman was called to Harvard Medical School as Shattuck professor of pathological anatomy. He soon proved himself a highly competent investigator and an exceptionally able teacher, in both the classroom and the several hospitals with which he became associated. In 1900, together with F. B. Mallory and R. M. Pearce, he brought out a comprehensive monograph on diphtheria. At the same time he developed an intense interest in cerebrospinal meningitis and chronic nephritis and published several important studies on these diseases with Mallory and J. H. Wright.

In 1904, with several associates, Councilman published a monograph on the pathology of smallpox, which was called by his biographer Harvey Cushing the best treatise ever written on the pathology of that disease. Councilman had a unique capacity to work with younger men, many of whom later became leaders in pathology. Much of his best work with them emanated from Boston City, Massachusetts General, and Peter Bent Brigham hospitals.

Councilman was widely honored. He was the principal founder and first president of the American Association of Pathologists and Bacteriologists, and in that capacity greatly stimulated the development of pathology in the United States.


I. Original Works. Councilman’s major contributions on the pathology of infectious disease include “Amoebic Dysentery,” written with H. A. Lafleur, in Johns Hopkins Hospital Reports, 2 (1891),395–548; Epidemic Cerebrospinal Meningitis and Its Relations With Other Forms of Meningitis, written with F. B. Mallory and J. H. Wright (Boston, 1898); “A Study of the Bacteriology and Pathology of Two Hundred and Twenty Fatal Cases of Diphtheria,” written with F. B. Mallory and R. M. Pearce, in Journal of the Boston Society of Medical Sciences, 5 (1900), 139–319; and “Studies on the Pathology and on the Aetiology of Variola and Vaccinia,” written with G. B. Magrath et al., in Journal of Medical Research, 11 (1904), 1–361.

II. Secondary Literature. Biographical sketches of Councilman have been published in several medical journals. See especially Harvey Cushing, “William Thomas Councilman, 1854–1933,” in Science, 77 (1933), 613–618, repr. in Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, 18 (1938), 157–174, with a complete bibliography of Councilman’s published papers; and S. B. Wolbach, “William Thomas Councilman, 1854–1933,” in Archives of Pathology, 16 (1933), 114–119.

Esmond R. Long

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