Novy, Frederick George

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(b. Chicago, Illinois, 9 December 1864; d. Ann Arbor, Michigan, 8 August 1957)


Novy’s father, a tailor, and his mother, a milliner, emigrated from Bohemia to the United States in 1864. A high school teacher stimulated Novy’s interest in chemistry, and he received a bachelor’s degree in that subject from the University of Michigan in 1886. Following graduation he remained at Michigan— where he was to spend his entire career—to work as an assistant to the organic chemist Albert Prescott and to pursue graduate studies. He received a master’s degree in 1887 for his research on cocaine and its derivatives. In that year the direction of his interests began to shift from organic chemistry to physiological chemistry and bacteriology when he accepted an instructorship in the department of hygiene and physiological chemistry, headed by Victor Vaughan. He continued his graduate work, receiving the D.Sc. in 1890 and a medical degree in 1891. He was promoted to assistant professor in the latter year and to junior professor in 1893. In 1902 he became professor and chairman of the newly founded department of bacteriology, a post that he held until his retirement in 1935. He also served as dean of the medical school from 1933 to 1935.

Novy’s strong commitment to truth and to meticulous scientific work was immortalized in the person of Max Gottlieb in Sinclair Lewis’ novel Arrowsmith. Paul de Kruif, one of Novy’s students, served as a technical advisor to Lewis on the book and helped to create the character of Gottlieb, the dedicated scientist, who represented a blend of Novy and Jacques Loeb. Honors received by Novy during his lifetime included membership in the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society and honorary degrees from the University of Cincinnati and the University of Michigan. He was married in 1891 and was the father of five children.

Novy was one of the pioneers in bacteriology in the United States. He and Vaughan spent their vacation in 1888 at Robert Koch’s Berlin laboratory, learning the techniques and concepts of the new science of bacteriology. In January 1889 they instituted at Michigan a course that may well have been the first systematic laboratory instruction in bacteriology offered at an American medical school, although lectures and occasional experiments in the subject had apparently entered the medical curriculum of some American universities by that time. The course, which consisted of three months of intensive laboratory work, was so successful that it was made a required part of the medical curriculum in 1890. Novy was also one of the charter members of the Society of American Bacteriologists, founded in 1899, and served as its president in 1904.

Novy’s early work in microbiology dealt with the toxic products produced by bacteria. In 1888 he collaborated with Vaughan on a book on this subject which expressed the view that pathogenic bacteria cause disease by decomposing complex substances in the body to produce poisonous alkaloids. By the fourth edition of the work (1902), the authors had adopted a view more in accord with current thought: that the bacterial toxins involved in disease are usually complex proteins which are synthesized by the microorganisms. They still overemphasized however, the importance of toxins in infectious diseases. For example, the symptoms of anthrax and pneumonia were assumed to be due to toxins produced by the bacteria involved, whereas the ability of these and many other bacteria to produce disease actually appears to be due, to their invasiveness (their ability to invade tissues and spread and multiply).

Novy devoted a significant amount of attention to anaerobic bacteria and developed apparatus for the cultivation and study of these organisms, such as the Novy jar, an anaerobic culture method in which the air in the jar is removed by a vacuum pump and replaced by an inert gas such as nitrogen. In 1894 he discovered and isolated the organism now known as Clostridium novyi, a species of gas gangrene bacillus.

Novy is probably best known for his extensive studies on trypanosomes and spirochetes, and he was apparently the first to cultivate a pathogenic protozoan (the trypanosome) in an artifical culture medium. Spirochaeta novyi. the organism that causes the American variety of relapsing fever, was discovered in his laboratory in 1906.

Among Novy’s other research contributions were his studies in microbial respiration (especially on the respiration of the tubercle bacillus) and his investigation of anaphylaxis.


I . Original Works. For bibliographies of Novy’s publications, see Esmond Long, “Frederick George Novy,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 33 (1959), 342–350; and S, E. Gould, “Frederick George Novy, Microbiologist,” in American Journal of Clinical Pathology, 29 (1958), 305–309. For his views on bacterial toxins, see Ptomaines and Leucomaines, or the Putrefactive and Physiological Alkaloids (Philadelphia, 1888), written with V. C. Vaughan. The 4th ed., which was considerably revised, is entitled Cellular Toxins, or the Chemical Factors in the Causation of Disease (Philadelphia-New York, 1902). For a review of his work on trypanosomes, see his “On Trypanosomes,” Harvey Lectures, 1 (1905–1906), 33–72, On spirochetes, see “Relapsing Fever and Spirochetes.” in Transactions of the Association of American Physicians, 21 (1906), 456–464, written with R. E. Knapp. His most important studies on anaphylaxis were reported in a series of papers in Journal of Infectious Diseases, 20 (1917). Two important papers entitled “Microbic Respiration” appeared ibid., 36 (1925), 109–232.

II. Secondary Literature. Two substantial biographical articles about Novy have been cited above: Long, pp. 326–350; and Gould, pp. 297–309. There is list of eight biographical sketches in Genevieve Miller, ed., Bibliography of the History of Medicine of the United States and Canada, 1939–1960 (Baltimore, 1964), 80–81. See also Thomas Francis, Jr., “Frederick George Novy, 1864–1957, “ in Transactions of the Association of American Physicians. 71 (1958), 35–37; and the article on Novy in National Cyclopedia of American Biography, XVI (1918), 93. Paul de Kruif, The Sweeping Wind: A Memoir (New York, 1962), makes several references to Novy—including pp. 93–94, 96, 102–103, 109—and discusses the aspects of Novy’s character that were portrayed in the person of Max Gottlieb in Sinclair LewisArrowsmith.

John Parascandola

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