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Overdue kudos for medical innovator

Dr. William Hinton, the son of slaves, kept a low profile because of the racism of his time. Dr. William Hinton, the son of slaves, kept a low profile because of the racism of his time. (Harvard Medical Library, Countway Library of Medicine)

When Dr. William Augustus Hinton developed his test for syphilis in 1927, the disease was on the rise in the United States. Much like AIDS in the 1980s, it was a scourge to be feared, sometimes resulting in blindness, heart disease, paralysis, and madness. Poor, black communities were struck particularly hard.

The Hinton test was more accurate and less expensive than its predecessors, and it spared untold numbers from long, painful, and risky courses of treatment. The test was endorsed by the US Public Health Service and adopted by hospitals around the country. Yet Hinton kept a low profile, refusing an award on at least one occasion and opting not to attend meetings of the American Microbiological Association, of which he was a member.

"He didn't want notoriety," said his grandson, Charles Jones. A modest man, Hinton was black, and he feared that his peers would take his work less seriously if they knew.

Forty-eight years after Hinton's death, the Boston History & Innovation Collaborative will honor Hinton's contributions to healthcare during its eighth annual History & Innovation Awards at the InterContinental Boston hotel on Nov. 13. With the award, the Collaborative hopes to introduce Hinton's work to the many Bostonians who have never heard of him.

"Hinton is not really included when people talk about Boston's medical innovators," Robert Krim, executive director of the Collaborative, said. "But he's a towering figure when you look back, especially in light of racism in the 1920s."

Born to former slaves in Chicago in 1883, Hinton would early on show an exceptional academic aptitude and a keen ability to turn obstacles into opportunity. He entered the premedical program at the University of Kansas when he was 16, and went on to receive a bachelor's degree from Harvard College in 1905.

Four years later when he entered Harvard Medical School, he was offered a scholarship for black students. He turned it down in order to compete for one open to all - and won it two years in a row. Hinton finished medical school with honors after just three years.

"His message was one of what could be accomplished through opportunity, perseverance, and having mentors," said Dr. Joan Reede, dean for diversity and community partnership at Harvard Medical School and member of a Collaborative committee established to promote the award among Boston's medical community. "He broke through barriers and said, 'I can excel as an African-American and as a physician.' "

In the early part of his career, Hinton would not have been allowed to treat patients in Boston's hospitals (it was not until the 1930s when black physicians began working at hospitals in the city). He worked instead at Wasserman Laboratory, then part of Harvard Medical School, becoming involved early on in syphilis research. He became director of the laboratory in 1915, the year that it was transferred to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The following year, Hinton was also chosen to head the laboratory department at the Boston Dispensary, now the Tufts-New England Medical Center; there, he started a program to train women as lab technicians.

Soon came a teaching appointment at Harvard Medical School, where he served as an instructor for many years before being named the school's first African-American professor. Hinton was also tapped to teach courses at Tufts University and Simmons College during his long career.

"He was one of those people who was seen as bright and on the ball, and needed to be included in who was teaching courses in biology and immunology," Krim said. "Yet he is not known today to students and faculty, even in this area."

Krim hopes the public recognition will go beyond rectifying this and make Hinton a local folk hero. "Shouldn't there be buildings named after him? Shouldn't there be streets named after him?" Krim asked, noting that Boylston Street was named for the Boston-area doctor who was the first to inoculate people against smallpox. "We should be proud in Boston that here was someone who had something to give and did, and helped to identify a disease that was untreatable at the time."

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a quotation in a story in Monday's Health/Science section about the late Dr. William Augustus Hinton misrepresented the state of syphilis treatments in the 1920s, at the time that he developed a test for the disease. Treatments existed at the time, but they contained mercury or arsenic and had potentially serious side effects.

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