Sunday, July 31, 2011

Theobald Smith

Theobald Smith was born on July 31, 1859 in Albany, New York. His father, a German immigrant, ran a small tailoring shop. His mother taught him to play the piano at an early age and he was a good student in math. Smith attended public schools in Albany and won a full tuition scholarship to Cornell University. While at Cornell he earned extra money playing a church organ. He graduated from Cornell in 1881.

After graduation Smith initially intended to go into teaching, but he was unable to find a teaching job. His second choice was medicine and so he attended Albany Medical College graduating in 1883. After two years of medical school he did not feel himself ready for clinical practice so he returned to Cornell for graduate school and began working for Daniel E. Salmon at the newly established Bureau of the Animal Industry, which had been set up by the U.S. Congress in 1884 to fight animal diseases. Without any training in microbiology Smith taught himself by reading the papers of Pasteur, Koch, and Virchow. While at the BAI Smith isolated for the first time what came to be called Salmonella (named after Daniel Salmon) and was able to prove that Texas fever, a debilitating cattle disease, was carried by ticks. This was the first discovery of an arthropod borne disease.

In 1895 Smith took over running the Massachusetts State State Antitoxin Laboratory and in 1896 became professor of comparative pathology at Harvard University. While in Boston he continued his research on animal diseases and established that if animals are repeatedly exposed to a bacteria they become hypersensitive to it. This phenomena is known as anaphylaxis. His work on vaccines established that killed bacteria could act to generate immunity to living bacteria and he established that diphtheria could be vaccinated against by combining diphtheria toxin with its anti-toxin in a vaccine. In 1915 Smith left Harvard for the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research as the head of the Department of Animal Pathology. He remained at the Rockefeller institute until his retirement in 1929.

Smith was considered on of the most notable figures in American medicine at the time. Honors won by Smith include the Copley Medal, awarded by the Royal Society in 1933 and eleven honorary degrees from prestigious universities.

Smith died on December 10, 1934.


Schultz, Myron; "Theobald Smith"; Emerging Infectious Diseases 14:1940-1942 (2008)

Zinsser, Hans; "Biographical Memior of Theobald Smith: 1859-1934" in Biographical Memiors Vol. 17; National Academy Press 1936

Theobald Smith Wikipedia Entry

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sir William de Wiveleslie Abney

Sir William de Wiveleslie Abney was born on July 24, 1843 in Derby, England. His father, Rev. Edward Abney, was vicar of St. Alkmund's in Derby. Abney attended Rossall School and the Royal Military Academy in Woolrich and joined the Royal Engineers at 18, after which he served in India for several years. From his father he inherited a interest in photography and he attended the Military School of Engineering in Chatham in order to learn about it. There he was put in charge of a photography laboratory and he was promoted to captain in 1873. He became and instructor at Chatham in 1874.

While at Chatham Abney participated in the photographic observation of the transit of Venus in 1874 and developed film for infrared photography. Using this film he was able to take a picture of a boiling kettle of water in a completely dark room. He also used it to study the infrared spectrum of stars and developed infrared photography to be used to study the infra red spectrum of organic chemicals.

Infrared light is electromagnetic radiation that has a longer wavelength than visible red light (which is at the long wavelength end of the visible spectrum). It is emitted by hot objects near room temperature. Infrared light is absorbed and emitted by organic molecules as they change their rotational and vibrational states and based on the wavelengths of these absorptions it can be used to identify various compounds.

Abney wrote many books on photography which were the standard texts of the day. He was a member of the Royal Astronomical Society once serving as president and was a member of the Physical Society of London, where he also served as president. He was a member of the Royal Society and was knighted in 1900.

He died on December 3, 1920.


Obituary in the Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 81:250-254(1921)

Obituary in the British Journal of Opthamology 5:47-48(1921)

Sir William de Wiveleslie Abney Wikipedia Entry

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Gilbert White

Gilbert White was born on July 18, 1720 in the village of Selborne, England, while his parents were living in the house of his grandfather, also named Gilbert White, the vicar of Selborne. When White was one year old, his father and mother moved to a house in the village of Compton. Like any other country boy, Gilbert took many walks through nature, although he did not keep diary of his walks. The family moved back to Selborne when he was nine, after the death of his grandfather. At the age of thirteen or fourteen White went to Basingstoke where he studied under the Reverend Thomas Warton. In April 1740 he entered Oriel College, Oxford, graduating in 1743.

He spent the following year at Oriel attending lectures on mathematics and was elected fellow the following March. In April 1747 he received Deacon's orders and became the curate for his uncle Charles in Swarraton. In due time he was ordained priest by the bishop of Hereford. He was elected proctor and returned to Oxford for a year in 1753. He returned to Selborn in 1755, although he did not remain there permanently until he became curate in 1784. He remained in Selborne for the rest of his life.

White is most famous for his book, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, first published in 1789. The book is a compilation of a series of letters that White wrote to Thomas Pennant, a leading zoologist of the day and Daines Barrington a barrister and member of the Royal Society. In the letters, White describes his observations of nature, among other things describing the feeding habits of bats, the evening maneuvers of rooks and the improvement of horticultural soil by earthworms. In the work White identifies many species for the first time.

White is honored as the first English ecologist and the book, which has been in publication since its first printing, has been recognized as the fourth most published book in the English language, after the Bible, the Works of Shakespeare, and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. White lived out his days in Selborne, passing away on June 26, 1793.


Parkins, Keith;"Gilbert White"

Mabey, Richard; Gilbert White:A Biography of the Author of the Natural History of Selborne; University of Virginia Press; 2007

Gilbert White Wikipedia Entry

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Theodore Maiman

Theodore Harold Maiman was born or July 11, 1927 in Los Angeles, California. The next year he moved to Denver, Colorado with his parents. His father, Abraham Maiman, was an electrical engineer and an inventor. Maiman was curious to how things work and was always taking things apart, to the dismay of his parents. In high school he worked in a electronics repair shop to earn money.

He earned a BS in engineering physics from the University of Colorado in 1949 and then went on to Stanford University where he earned a MS in electrical engineering in 1951 and a Ph.D. in physics in 1955 completing a thesis, under Willis Lamb, involving detailed optical measurements of the fine structure splittings in excited helium atoms

He then joined Hughes Laboratories where he worked on the stimulated emission of microwave energy. A MASER (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) had been invented earlier by Charles Townes working at Bell Laboratories. Townes and Arthur Schawlow in their paper suggest that their success, creating the MASER, could be repeated making a device that emits a coherent beam of light in the visual spectrum. This is called a LASER (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).

Maiman was the first to produce a working LASER, announcing his invention at a press conference on July 7, 1960. He published his results in the British journal Nature, after his paper was refused by Physical Review Letters because it was deemed to be to repetitive. Maiman left Hughes Laboratories in 1962 and went on to work for a series of different companies, some of his own founding, working on LASERs and their applications.

Maiman was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize and was a member of the National Academy of Science and National Academy of Engineering. He won the Oliver E Buckley Prize in 1966 and won the 1983/4 Wolf Prize for Physics. He was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in also in 1984.

He died on May 5, 2007.


Day, Lance; McNeil Ian; "Maiman, Theodore Harold" in Biographical Dictionary of the History of Technology; Taylor & Francis; 1998

Martin Douglas; "Theodore Maiman Dies, 79; Demonstrated First Laser";New York Times; May 11, 2007

Wycoff, Edwin Britt; Laser Man: Theodore Maiman and His Brilliant Invention; Enslow Publishers Inc; 2007

Theodore Maiman Wikipedia Entry

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Charles Schuchert

Charles Schuchert was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on July 3, 1858 the oldest of six children of German emigrant parents, who had come to Cincinnati only a few years previously. His father, Philip, was a cabinetmaker and built up a successful business. At six, young Charles began attending Catholic parochial school, finishing at age twelve to go on to business school, to train as a bookkeeper for his father's business. While in school, Schuchert worked in his father's shop, first in the varnishing room. He did not last one year in business school, but continued working for his father, gradually working his way up to become general manager of his father's shop. In 1877 a fire destroyed the business, leaving Schuchert to support the family by working in other furniture factories.

Throughout his youth Schuchert collected fossils. In 1869 his father took him to see the museum of William Foster, who had a great quantity of fossil samples from around Cincinnati. Schuchert was amazed to learn that most of the fossils displayed were from under the sea that had once covered Ohio. In 1877 Schuchert met Edward Oscar Ulrich, who had a large collection of fossils and had done college work in paleontology. In 1881 Ulrich began publishing papers on local fossils and Schuchert helped him using lithography to illustrate his work. Ulrich began getting commissions to write and Schuchert helped him with the work. By this time Schuchert had collected a large collection of brachiopods, a phylum of marine animals with hard valves (shells), some collected on his own and some obtained from trading samples with Ulrich and other collectors.

In 1889 James Hall, the state paleontologist of New York came to Cincinnati in order to prepare a work on brachiopods. Hall met with Schuchert and impressed with his collection offered him a position as his assistant. Schuchert went to Albany, New York with Hall and assisted him in preparing his publications. After working in Albany, Schuchert briefly assisted N. H. Whinchel in Minneapolis, and then in 1893 joined the staff of the U.S. Geological survey in Washington. He worked for the Geological Survey until 1904, when he was appointed professor at Yale University. Shuchert remained at Yale until his retirement in 1926.

Schuchert's initial interest in brachiopods widened to the paleontolgic record as his career developed. From this resulted a series of paleogeographic maps, prepared by Schuchert, that showed the distribution of land and sea during the geologic past. In 1910 he published Paleogeography of the United States which was illustrated with a series of fifty maps. Schuchert continued working on these maps and by 1913 the number had grown to 85, eventually reaching 130. The closing years of Schuchert's life were spent preparing Historical Geography of North America, two volumes of which were published and one was in preparation at the time of his death.

Honors won by Schuchert include election as president of the Paleontological Society in 1910 and president of the Geological Society of America in 1922. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1911 and won the Mary Clark Thompson Medal from the N.A.S. and the Penrose Medal from the Geological Society of America in 1934. He won honorary degrees from New York, Yale, and Harvard Universities. The Paleontological Society each year presents the Charles Schuchert Award each year to the person, under 40, whose work reflects excellence and promise in the field of paleontology.

Schuchert died on November 20, 1942.


Knopf, Alfred;"Charles Schuchert: 1858-1942" in Biographical Memoirs (1952) National Academy Press