Prudden, Theophil Mitchell

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(b. Middle-bury, Connecticut, 7 July 1849; d. New York, N.Y., 10 April 1924)

pathology, bacteriology, public health, archaeology.

A founder of pathology as a field of research and teaching in the United States, Prudden was a son of George Peter Prudden, a Congregational minister, and Eliza Anne Johnson Prudden. Ill health frequently interrupted his early schooling, and he was sent for long periods to his early schooling, and he was sent for long periods to his grandfather’s farm. When the family moved to New Haven, where the father headed a boys’ school, Prudden was enrolled as a student.

At seventeen Prudden entered the employ of a furniture manufacturing firm, but the soon realized that he must continue his education. To remedy his irregular schooling, he studied first at home, then at the Wilbraham Academy in Massachusetts; and at twenty, with a Connecticut state scholarship for his tuition, he began the course at the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale. Here he determined to enter medicine; and a new program of premedical courses, including zoology, botany, and chemistry, was organized for Prudden and his friend Thomas H. Russell. The two students received the close attention of Addison Verrill and Sidney Smith, and their scientific enthusiasms were broad. They avidly collected specimens of botanical, zoological, and mineralogical interest; and during the spring vacation of 1872 they dredged in Long Island and Vineyard sounds from a charted yacht. After graduating Ph.B. that year, Prudden joined Verrill’s dredging expedition based at Eastport, Maine, for the summer and explored the waters of the Bay of Fundy, collecting crustaceans and studying the algae with Daniel C. Eaton while the latter was with the group.

As an undergraduate at Sheffield, Prudden had begun to teach the freshman chemistry course as a substitute; his continued teaching of chemistry helped him to meet expenses when he entered the Yale School of Medicine. During the summer of 1873 he took part in the fossil-hunting expedition in the West headed by Othniel C. Marsh.

In the spring of 1875, while in his last year at medical school, Prudden attended lectures in New York at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and worked in the laboratory of the pathologist Francis Delafield. He received the M.D. degree from Yale. While an intern at New Haven Hospital he was given an excellent microscope—one he could not have afforded—and this may have influenced his interest in microscopic investigation.

Prudden left for two year’ study abroad in 1876. At Heidelberg, under Julius Arnold and Richard Thoma, he investigated the effects of various injurious substances upon the living cartilage cells of the frog, using their methods for in vitro studies. He visited laboratories in Vienna and Berlin; but upon returning to America, he found his training in histology and pathology in little demand by the medical schools and therefore established a practice in New Haven. William H. Welch, who pioneered in research and teaching of pathology, recommended Prudden for the post of first assistant in the new laboratory received most of its funds from the alumni of the College of Physicians and Surgeons and for several years made up its annual deficits by reducing the salary of the director. Nevertheless the narrow room, crowed between a harness shop and an ice cream shop, represented a stride forward. Prudden became director of the laboratory in 1882 and drew a number of students and others interested in his investigations. The facility later had new quarters, and Prudden was Professor of pathology at Columbia from 1892 until his retirement; but it was to this first cramped, all-purpose laboratory that Prudden brought the new concepts of Pasteur and Koch, applying them in his teaching on the etiology and spread of disease, and in dealing with the health problems of the city.

Prudden and Welch were among the first Americans taught by Koch at Berlin in 1885; Prudden carried a request from the Connecticut State Board of Health to report on Koch’s method of studying the germs that cause diseases, particularly cholera. When he returned, Prudden partitioned a section of his laboratory for research in bacteriology.

Prudden worked tirelessly: from 1880 to 1886 he commuted to teach normal histology at the Yale School of Medicine; he carried out numerous routine investigations in the laboratory; he was consulting bacteriologist for the health department of New York City; and he served in many capacities on local and state bodies dedicated to improve hygiene. His advice was often sought: he was called during an outbreak of typhoid in Providence in 1888; he examined the water of Minneapolis that year when winter cholera struck; in 1891 he testified in the suit to obtain an injunction preventing the city of Passaic from emptying sewage into the Passaic River in New Jersey; and he assisted when cholera threatened the port of New York in 1892.

Prudden’s activities drew many honors. He received the M.D. from Yale in 1897 and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences. At the founding of the Rockerfeller Institute for Medical Research in 1901 Prudden served as vice-president of its board of scientific directions; and his retirement from teaching responsibilities in 1909 gave him more time to devote to its administration, policy, and other matters.

With Delafield, Prudden wrote a landmark textbook of pathology, long considered the foremost English text in the field. He also wrote a manual of histology and numerous scholarly articles. Through popular works he endeavored to broaden the understanding of the infectious organisms that cause disease; he stressed proper sanitation and scored such common practices as the cutting of ice from the polluted Hudson River; he campaigned for clean ice as well as clean drinking water, and for assured purity of the milk supply. During summer vacations he made many trips to the West, and he wrote on the archaeology and Indians of the Southwest. He visited the prehistoric cliff dwellings of the region and contributed the materials gathered on his expeditions to museums; a collection is in the Peabody Museum at Yale.


I. Original Works. There is a collection of Prudden’s papers, including correspondence, notes, and various other items, in the Manuscript Room of the Yale University Library. The notebooks of the 1872 trip to East port, Maine, and the 1873 trip to the West with O.C. Marsh are in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. Sets of Prudden’s articles and reprints are in the libraries of the Rockefeller University, the New York Academy of Medicine, and the Yale University School of Medicine. With Francis Delafield he published A Handbook of Pathological Anatomy and Histology (New York, 1885; 7th ed., 1904); this influential text was first written as an extension and revision of Delafield’s A Handbook of Post-Mortem Examinations and of Morbid Anatomy (1872); Francis Carter Wood was later coauthor with Prudden and subsequently made the revisions. Prudden wrote A Manual of Practical Normal Histology (New York, 1882); The Story of the Bacteria and Their Relations to Health and Disease (New York-1889) and Dust and Its Dangers (New York, 1890). His articles include “Beobachtungen am lebenden Knorpel,” in Virchows Archiv fur patholo-gische Anatomie und Physiologie75 (1879), 1–14; and “Studies on the Action of Dead Bacteria in the Living Body,” in Medical Record (New York), 53 (1891), 637–640, 697–704, written with Eugene Hodenpyl. “Pathology and the Department of Pathology,” in Columbia University Bulletin, 19 (1898), 103–119; and “Progress and Drift in Pathology,” in Medical Record (New York), 57 (1900), 397–405, provide reviews of the changes in pathology during Prudden’s career. Among his archaeological contributions were “A Summer Among Cliff Dwellings,” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 93 (1896), 545–561; and On the Great American Plateau (New York, 1907).

II. Secondary Literature. Lillian E. Prudden, ed., Biographical Sketches and Letters of T. Mitchell Prudden, M.D. (New Haven, 1927), contains autobiographical and other material on Prudden’s life and contributions, and a bibliography (pp. 293–300). See also Simon Flexner, “T. Mitchell Prudden, 1849 1924,” in Science, 60 (1924), 415–419; Ludvig Hektoen, “Biographical Memoir of Theophil Mitchell Prudden 1849–1924” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 12 (1929), 73–93; and Francis Carter Wood, “Prudden, Theophil Mitchell,” in Dictionary of American Biography, XXV (New York, 1935), 252–253; and Obituary Record, Yale University, 1923–24 (New Haven, 1924), 1154–1155.

Gloria Robinson