Gay, Frederick Parker

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Gay, Frederick Parker

(b. Boston, Massachusetts, 22 July 1874; d. New Hartford. Connecticut, l4 July 1939)

bacteriology, pathology..

Born into a prominent Boston family, Gay followed the tradition of attending the Boston Latin School and Harvard (B.A. 1897), where he developed a lifelong interest in art, music, and classical literature. At Johns Hopkins Medical School (1897–1901) the exceptional student attracted the attention of Simon Flexner, who made Gay his assistant and invited him to join the world tour of the Johns Hopkins Medical Commission for the study of bubonic plague and other diseases (1899). After one year in the Philippines investigating cholera and dysentery, Gay returned home via Paris, where he studied at the Pasteur Institute, was fascinated by the young and brilliant Jules Bordet, and became acquainted with the infant sciences of microbiology and immunology. After returning to America he was awarded the first fellowship of the recently established Rockefeller Institute (1901), serving from 1901 to 1903 as assistant demonstrator in pathology at the University of Pennsylvania, then headed by his mentor, Simon Flexner.

But pure pathology was not destined to retain Gay’s exclusive attention. In 1903 he rejoined Bordet, now established in his own Pasteur Institute in Brussels, and for the next three years was deeply engrossed in the emerging problems of anaphylaxis, complement-fixation, and other aspects of immunology. In 1904 Gay married Catherine Mills Jones; they had three children. Returning to America in 1906, he served for one year as bacteriologist at the Danvers, Massachusetts, Insane Asylum, and from 1907 to 1909 was assistant and then instructor in pathology at Harvard Medical School. In 1909 Gay completed and published the first English translation of the classic Studies in Immunology by Bordet and his associates, an accomplishment that immediately brought him into national prominence.

In 1910 he accepted the position of professor of pathology at the University of California at Berkeley, a post he was to retain for thirteen years, with only a brief interruption for service in the army. At Berkeley he finally persuaded the authorities to establish a separate department of bacteriology, and it was as the department’s first director that he spent his final two years in California. During World War I and later Gay served as a member of the medical section of the National Research Council, and in 1922 he was its chairman. He also served as chairman of the Council’s Medical Fellowship Board from 1922 to 1926. In the latter year he traveled from one Belgian university to another as exchange professor.

In 1923 Gay had accepted his last academic position, as professor of bacteriology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. His monograph Typhoid Fever (New York, 1918) was already well-known, but at Columbia he produced his most famous work, Agents of Disease and Host Resistance (Springfield, 1935), the best exposition of the problems of bacteriology and immunology of the period. His humanistic interests also asserted them selves at this time; his Last book, The Open Mind (Chicago, 1938), dedicated to the memory of his lifelong friend, the psychiatrist Elmer E. Southard, reveals the depth of his concern with current problems of psychology and sociology.

Gay’s honors were many: Belgium accorded him the Order of the Crown for his work with the American Commission on Relief; George Washington University granted him an Sc.D. degree in 1932; and he was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences a few months before his death. Membership in other learned societies included the Association of American Physicians, the American Association of Pathologists and Bacteriologists, the American Society for Experimental Pathology, the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine, the Association of American Bacteriologists, and the American Association of Immunologists.

Any evaluation of Gay’s wide and varied contributions to science and to society must deal with the unusual dichotomy of his interests. The influence of Bordet is evident in his studies on serum reactions (1905–1910) and on anaphylaxis (1905–1913). This led to a lasting concern with tissue immunity and especially with the roles played by the reticuloendothelial system and the clasmatocyte (histiocyte). As a bacteriologist he made substantial contributions to our knowledge of the carrier state in typhoid (1913–1919); hemolytic streptococcic infections (1919–1939); and viral diseases, especially the herpetic and encephalitic (1929–1939). Other specific entities with which he concerned himself included pneumonia, meningitis, influenza, and poliomyelitis. Always he explored the possibility of indlucing antibody formation by the use of antigens, stressing the practical application of such reactions to the diagnostic problems of infectious disease. Among the multitude of related subjects on which Gay wrote are cowpox, tobacco mosaic, bacteriophage, protozoa, spirochetes, rickettsia, dental caries, Vincent’s angina, bacterial mutation, chemotherapy, lysozyme, and the importance of hormones and vitamins in resistance to infection.

In all these areas his position is assured; yet he deserves special consideration as that relatively infrequent and unusual combination of scientist, social philosopher, and humanist. Gay was also a man of great sincerity and integrity. Possessed of a touch of compassion for the plight of humanity, he forged strong bonds of affection which made him a seminal influence in the lives of those who knew him well.


On Gay or his work see J. M. Cattell and Jacques Cattell, eds., American Men of Science (New York, 1938), p. 508; A. R. Dochez, “Frederick Parker Gay 1874–1939,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 38 (1954), 99–116, with portrait and complete bibliography; and Claus W. Jungeblut, “Frederick Parker Gay,” in Science. 20 (1939), 290–291.

Morris H. Saffron