Thayer, William Sydney

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(b. Milton, Masschusetts, 23 June 1864; d. Washington, D.C., 10 December 1932)


Thayer, known as “Billy” to his friends and medical colleagues, was the eldest of four children of a prominent New England family. His father, James B. Thayer, was professor of law at Harvard; his mother, Sophia Ripley, was a granddaughter of Gamaliel Bradford and cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson. His younger brother, Ezra, became dean of the Harvard Law School.

Thayer entered Harvard University at age sixteen, graduated with the B.A. and Phi Beta Kappa honors in 1885, and began medical studies at the Harvard Medical School the same fall. While there, he was particularly stimulated by the professor of pathology, Reginald Heber Fitz, the author of a classic study of appendicitis, who combined clinical and laboratory work, a model Thayer followed in his own career. After receiving his medical degree in 1889, Thayer continued his studies at the principal pathological laboratories of Berlin and Vienna. He returned to Boston in 1890; engaged in private practice very briefly; and later that year accepted a position as resident physician at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, opened the year before. Thayer was recommended for this position by a Harvard classmate, the surgeon J. M. T. Finney, who had preceded him to Baltimore.

At Hopkins, where Thayer spent his entire medical career except for wartime service, he immediately came under the influence and tutelage of William Osler, one of the most impressive and forceful medical teachers of his era. Thayer’s solid grounding in the laboratory study of disease fitted well into the Hopkins system, for Osler himself had been a pathologist before turning to clinical medicine. Thayer did most of his important investigative work early in his Baltimore years. Using techniques such as blood staining, which he had learned from Paul Ehrlich in Germany, Thayer investigated a number of diseases and the blood cell’s response to them.

The two most prevalent diseases that Thayer encountered in the wards of the Johns Hopkins Hospital when he began his duties were malaria and typhoid fever. Since Civil War days, diagnoses had been confused by the supposed existence of typhomalarial fever. Thayer, fresh from the German laboratories where Virchow, Ehrlich, and others stressed the importance of microscopic study of stained tissues, put these new techniques to good use in an extensive study of malaria in Baltimore. With a colleague from the medical clinic, John Hewetson, Thayer published The Malarial Fevers of Baltimore (1895), an analysis of 616 cases of proven malaria seen at the Hopkins in the first five years of the hospital’s existence. Besides being an extensive review of the literature and a historical summary of the existing knowledge of malaria, the work clearly differentiated the characteristic fever cycles associated with the distinct species of malaria parasites. Two years later Thayer published Lectures on the Malarial Fevers, which quickly became one of the standard works on the subject. He chided his fellow American physicians for being “lamentably backward” in appreciating the advances that had been made since Laveran’s discovery of the malaria parasite in 1880.

Under Osler’s influence, Thayer slowly changed the emphasis of his work from the science of medicine to its art, from the laboratory to the bedside.

Upon Osler’s departure for Oxford in 1905, Thayer was advanced to the position of professor of clinical medicine; but L. F. Barker was chosen to succeed Osler. Both men continued to work together amicably, however; and when Harvard offered Thayer a chair in 1912, he declined. He was a superb diagnostician and clinical teacher, always urging his students to make full use of their senses but not to neglect the laboratory aids to diagnosis. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, he wrote a number of important papers on aspects of cardiology, such as heart blocks, arteriosclerosis, cardiac murmurs, and the third heart sound. He also inspired a number of students and house officers in their work; many later became famous in their own right. For many years Thayer and the professor of pathology, W. G. MacCallum, conducted the clinicopathologic conference attended by most students and house officers.

In 1917, Thayer participated in the Red Cross mission to Russia to study health conditions and to determine what aid was necessary conditions and to determine what aid was necessary conditions and to determine what aid was necessary. The task was the more arduous because Thayer had to leave behind his ailing wife, Susan C. Thayer, who died while he was away. They had been married in 1902, and their only child had died in early infancy. Despite his personal anguish, Thayer continued to respond to what he felt was his duty. General Pershing made him director of general medicine for the A.E.F. in 1918. Thayer returned to Hopkins the following year, becoming professor of medicine and physician-in-chief to the Johns Hopkins Hospital. He was named professor emeritus in 1921, but continued his large consulting practice in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Thayer was known as a clinician’s clinician, widely sought out for difficult diagnoses, and much respected for his teaching abilities. He was adept in the use of language, his own as well as French, German, and Russian, and urged his students to learn foreign languages. He was a literary man, widely read, and published a volume of poetry. He was known for his dapper dress and the ever–present flower in his lapel. Thayer’s greatest influence, like that of Osler before him, was experienced by the many students who learned the art of medicine from him at the bedside. He received numerous foreign medals and citations and honorary degrees. He was also a member of the Board of Overseers of Harvard University.


I. Original Works. Thayer’s bibliography includes nearly 180 articles on a great variety of clinical subjects. His three books on medical subjects deserve special notice: The Malarial Fevers of Baltimore (Baltimore, 1895), written with john Heweston; Lectures on Malarial Fevers (New York, 1897); and Osler and Other Papers (Baltimore, 1931).

II. Secondary Literature. The only book–length biography is Edith G. Raid, The Life and Convictions of William Sydney Thayer (London, 1936), a somewhat gushing portrayal but useful for Thayer the man. For Thayer the physician see especially “The Thayer Memorial Exercises . . .,” in Johns Hopkins Hospital Bulletin, 55 (1934), 201–219. See also L. F. Barker, “William Sydney Thayer”, in Science, 76 (1932), 617–619; and Henry M. Thomas, Jr., “Dr. Thayer”, in Johns Hopkins Hospital Bulletin, 54 (1934), 211–215; and “William Sydney Thayer, Distinguished Physician and Teacher”, ibid., 109 (1961), 61–65. Three books not specifically about Thayer are nevertheless important sources: Alan Chesney, The Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, I 1867–1893 (Baltimore, 1943), pp. 170–172; Harvey Cushing, The Life of Sir William Osler, 2 vols. (London, 1925), passim; and J. M. T. Finney, A Surgeon’s Life (New York, 1940), 309–315.

Gert H. Brieger

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Thayer, William Sydney

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