Empirical Findings by a Young Medical Scientist on Two Acute Infectious Diseases That Changed Medical Practice

By S, Edward | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 31, 1997 | Go to article overview

Empirical Findings by a Young Medical Scientist on Two Acute Infectious Diseases That Changed Medical Practice


S, Edward, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Empirical Findings By a Young Medical Scientist on Two Acute Infectious Diseases That Changed Medical Practice

During his impressive career, medical authorities acknowledged, and patients praised Dr. Louis T. Wright as a surgeon of uncommon mastery. (See reference notes 1, 3, 5 & 9). Later, as an administrator at the Harlem Hospital, his devotion and dedication to high standards in every phase of medical practice became a stalwart trademark. Early in his career Dr. Wright made certain discoveries that led to important innovations in health practice. All along, his civil rights advocacy was of such intensity and adherence to principle that one person called him, a "stormy petrel for justice". (See reference notes 1 & 9).

This paper limits itself to just one aspect of Wright's multifaceted career. It reviews two important investigations, occurring early in his long and productive life, on what he did and the resultant empirical findings. Also the Wrights investigations are noted in historical context as they were not matters in isolation but a part of American medical history. Such studies can prove useful in helping to understand the scientific processes, and something about the traits of people like Louis Wright who make their mark in the discipline called medical science.

Wright entered the Harvard Medical School in 1911 after graduating that same year from Clark College in Atlanta. That he ever gained admission to that premier medical institution is a testimony to his ability, courage, tenacity, and high aim. His enrollment at Harvard medical school confounded and delighted friends who wished him well. It also countered attempts to discourage him by flabbergasted Harvard officials who wondered where he carne from and wished he would go away. Nevertheless they reluctantly accepted him and the improbable young Georgian earned his M.D. degree from Harvard in 1915. Wright graduated with honors and ranked fourth best in his class. Then Howard University Medical School Freedman's Hospital accepted his application for internship. Wright might never have gone to Freedman's except that, despite his sterling record, all other hospitals to which he applied rejected him because he was black. In response to his applications, subtleties did not mark their rejection. An official at one hospital, while expressing admiration for his credentials, rejected Wright's application "on account" of his being "a colored man". The official returned his picture. (See reference note 15).

At Freedman's, Wright encountered the belief, then universally accepted in the medical profession, that to use the Schick Test for diphtheria immunity on people having dark skin was a waste of time. The telltale redness of skin that signalled immunity could only show in people with very light skin, they said. Young Dr. Wright questioned that wisdom despite its approbation by respected and experienced practitioners in the field. Perhaps at this point, it might be instructive to review the Schick Test, its background, and use.

THE SCHICK TEST

The Schick Test was developed in 1913, by a Hungarian born U. S. Pediatrician, Bela Schick (1877-1967). The test involved injecting a minute amount of diluted diphtheria toxin (0.1 mL) intradermally (within the skin). By noting the appearance of a patient's skin in the area of insertion, physicians could ascertain a person's susceptibility, or degree of immunity, to diphtheria. That test was a continuation in a long line of development aimed at better understanding and conquering a frightening and devastating disease. In 1826, a French physician Pierre Bretonneau, described diphtheria as a unique, specific, and identifiable illness. In 1853, E. Klebs discovered the causative bacteria, a gram positive club shaped bacillus named Cornebacterium diphtheriae. Later, other strains were found, principally c. diphtheria mitis, and c. diphtheria gravis. Twenty-five years after that, in 1888, P. P.

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