Concise History of the Department of Microbiology & Immunology: 1911 to 1968.
Edgar Calvin Leroy Miller (1867-1954) was born in Pelham, Massachusetts. He graduated from the Nebraska State Normal School in 1887 and attended the Theological Seminary in Oberlin College, but then went on for his medical education in the University of Michigan, earning his M.D. in 1894. He spent five years as a medical missionary in India before joining the research staff of Park Davis & Co. in Michigan. There he developed the diphtheria antitoxin and worked on bacterial vaccines for ten years. In 1911, he was offered the academic position of Professor of Bacteriology at the University College of Medicine in Richmond, Virginia. In spite of a significant reduction in salary, he gladly accepted the post, because he was “a natural teacher” and interested in medical education. The University College of Medicine and the Medical College of Virginia merged in 1913. The first MCV Bulletin of 1913 listed a Department of Bacteriology with three staff members, A.H. Straus as Associate Professor and Dr. Miller as an Associate.
In October, 1914, Dr. Miller, identified as Professor of Bacteriology, addressed a letter, on printed letterhead of the Department of Bacteriology, to the Board of Visitors requesting $125 for the purchase of a new, larger autoclave and stating that the Department had 154 students taking bacteriology at the time. The course was taught in the first semester of the second year. The Bulletin of 1914 (->) describes the Department’s teaching program and its Laboratory of Bacteriology. As indicated in the description, the major public health concerns at the time were diphtheria, tuberculosis and typhoid fever.
Dr. Miller also established the Department of Biochemistry in 1913. He and Associate Professor Robert F. McCrackan, along with two assistants, taught all the biochemistry at MCV from 1913 to 1927. In 1913, he became the custodian of the “College Library” in the Virginia Hospital, which was at the time a nurses’ home. It was the precursor of the Tompkins-McCaw Library. He was also the Dean of Medicine for one year in 1920. Afterwards, he was said to have often remarked with a twinkle in his eyes that he “soon recovered from that.”
In 1921, the didactic hours in bacteriology were increased to 64 and the laboratory hours were reduced to 84 for the semester. The description of the course included the study of pathogenic protozoa. Special attention was given to diphtheria, tuberculosis, pneumonia and direct smears of malarial blood and of gonorrheal pus. Other concerns were the purity of the city’s water supply and the utilization of immunity reactions of antitoxins and bacterial vaccines.
On May 3, 1923, Dr. Miller received a letter from the Secretary of the Board of Visitors, informing him that his annual compensation would be $4000 beginning from July 1, 1923, and that the Department was appropriated $600 for supplies and $300 for equipment.
Frederick W. Shaw, M.D. (1867 – 1954) was born in England and immigrated to the United States when he was a child. He was educated in medicine at the University of Kansas and received his M.D. in 1906. He served as a government physician in the Philippines from 1907 to 1914 and then in the Navajo Indian Reservation until 1915. He joined the faculty of the School of Mines in the University of Missouri from 1919 to 1924. He was appointed Associate Professor of Bacteriology in MCV in 1924 and succeeded Dr. Miller as Professor of Bacteriology and Parasitology and Chair of the Department of Bacteriology and Clinical Pathology in 1929. The Department was renamed the Department of Bacteriology and Parasitology in 1932.
In 1925, the laboratory time was increased to 128 hours to expand the exercises on practical application of bacteriological techniques and the course was described in a 1925 bulletin. Dr. Miller was among the founders of the Virginia Academy of Science in 1923 and of the Virginia Journal of Science in 1940. A description of the course and the Laboratory of Bacteriology in 1932 are shown here. He relinquished the Chair of Bacteriology in 1929 and became the full time director of the MCV Library in 1930. During his tenure, the Department of Bacteriology never had more than 4 or 5 staff members. They did all the teaching of this subject matter at MCV, including medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and nursing. In 1928, Evelyn C. Bryce (later Mrs. Carter) joined the Department. She was a medical technologist who prepared all the teaching materials in the teaching lab of the Department until her retirement in 1970.
Dr. Miller was undoubtedly a multi-talented scholar. He retired from MCV in 1947 and died in his daughter’s home in California in 1954. In October, 1954, the Council of the Virginia Academy of Science passed a resolution to honor Dr. Miller’s devoted services to the Academy and to the Virginia Journal of Science and to recognize his unique contribution to the scientific welfare of the Old Dominion and the nation.
Dr. Shaw was named Research Professor of Bacteriology in 1944, presumably due to ill health, and died in May, 1945. He was a major in the Medical Corps and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. He was described as “one of the best liked members of the faculty.” His obituary was written by Sidney S. Negus, Ph.D., Professor of Biochemistry, and appeared in the Virginia Journal of Science in January, 1955, (Vol. 6, No.1). It closed with these comments.
J. Douglas Reid, Sc.D. (1906 – 1991) was a native of Rhode Island. He earned his Ph.B. from Brown University in 1928 and his Sc.D. from the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health in 1931. He worked briefly in the Minnesota Department of Health, and in 1932 joined the scarlet fever study project as a research bacteriologist in the Richmond Department of Health. He was a member of the faculty of the University of Tennessee from 1937 to 1938. He returned to Richmond as an Associate Professor in the Department of Bacteriology and Parasitology at MCV in 1939.
While Lord Florey and his associates began testing a crude preparation of penicillin in the treatment of bacterial diseases in the Radcliffe Infirmary, the University of Oxford, in 1941, the Roanoke World News carried an article on October 7, 1942, entitled “Penicillin, Less Toxic Germ Killer Than Sulfa Drugs, Exhibited at the Medical Society Meeting.” It reported that Dr. Shaw and Dr. F. J. von Gutfeld from MCV exhibited “a small, round, sealed dish…. known as a Petri dish, (which) contained a substance known as nutrient agar.” On this agar dish, a trough was cut and a mixture of crude penicillin and agar was placed. “Then, on each side of this …. ‘penicillin fence’, was placed a drop of germ culture, three types: staphylococci which causes boils and blood poisoning; coli bacillus, the cause of infection of the urinary bladder; and pyocya-neusbacilli, the agent which produces pus in wounds. The three germ cultures grew and spread …. until they reached the ‘penicillin fence’. There they stopped dead in their tracks ….. ” In the word of Dr. von Gutfeld, the work at MCV at the time was the only penicillin research going forward anywhere in the U.S. It was probably not surprising, because Dr. Shaw was known as an “expert in fungi” and would have taken an interest in the mold Penicillium.
As early as 1934, a M.S. degree was offered in the Department of Biochemistry. The first two degrees were awarded in 1936. By 1939, the Committee of Graduate Study was chaired by Dr. J.C. Forbes, Associate Professor of Biochemistry. A reading knowledge of French or German was required for the degree. The 1942 MCV Bulletin describes the Bacteriology Department’s course in Medicine as shown here:
In 1945, Dr. Reid became the acting head of the Department and subsequently Professor and Chair of the Department. In 1948, E. Clifford Nelson joined the department as Associate Professor. He also received his Sc.D. from the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health and had just returned from the War with an extensive experience in parasitology during his service in the Pacific. In 1949, Herbert J. Welshimer, Ph.D. came from the Ohio State University as Assistant Professor. He was a very experienced clinical bacteriologist. Muriel M. Jones worked in the MCV Hospitals after her graduation from Westhampton College in 1932. She joined the department in 1948 and earned her M.S. degree with Dr. Reid in 1950. In 1951, Holmes T. Knighton, D.D.S., returned to MCV as the Chair of Dental Research and held a joint appointment as Professor in the department. He was the course director for the dental microbiology class until his retirement in 1973.
By 1951, MCV offered graduate degrees of M.S. and Ph.D. in Bacteriology, Biochemistry, Pathology, Pharmacology and Physiology. The reading knowledge of two foreign languages was required for the Ph.D. degree. This led to a formal graduate program administered by a Graduate Council in 1957.
In 1952-53, the Department was renamed the Department of Microbiology. The members of the faculty in the Department remained unchanged until 1961, when Robert W. Tankersley, Ph.D, came from Stanford University and the University of Minnesota as Assistant Professor. He was the virologist in the Department during the 1960s. With a substantial increase in budget appropriations from the State and additional space in 1963, MCV raised the enrollment of students in all its schools. The Department recruited three new junior faculty members: Hsiu-Sheng Hsu, Ph.D., came from the University of Pennsylvania and the Johns Hopkins Medical School as Instructor in 1964. Donald L. Everhart, Ph.D., came from Boston University as Assistant Professor and James D. Punch as Instructor while completing his Ph.D. in the University of Minnesota, both in 1966.
With the medical class entering in 1964, MCV converted its medical curriculum from the traditional subject matters to an organ system-oriented program. Microbiology and immunology were no longer taught as a preclinical discipline in the beginning of the second year. Instead, from 1965 to 1968, the subject matter was given in a short introduction in the beginning of the second year and then scattered throughout the second years, depending on where individual microbial agents were primarily involved in various organ systems. The 1968 MCV Bulletin describes the Department and its courses as shown (->):
As it is apparent from the descriptions of the department up to the late 1960s, its teaching programs in the professional schools remained virtually unchanged for some 55 years. The focus was essentially on the isolation and identification of microbial agents in infections and the host resistance to microbial diseases. Students were taught the practical applications of medical microbiology in clinical settings. The Department’s interest had been strong in medical mycology since the 1930s, as probably guided by Dr. Shaw, the “expert in fungi.” Dr. Reid’s personal research was also mostly related to mycology.
School of Basic Sciences
In 1966, the preclinical science departments of the School of Medicine were pooled to form the School of Basic Sciences. Daniel T. Watts, Ph.D., was named the Dean. This was partly intended to facilitate the expansion of graduate studies in biomedical sciences at MCV. In late 1967, Dr. Reid announced his retirement.
The portraits of the above three former Chairmen are hung in the Tompkins-McCaw Library.
To succeed Dr. Reid, S. Gaylen Bradley, Ph.D. was recruited from the University of Minnesota in 1968. In the meantime, MCV and the Richmond Professional Institute were merged under the name of Virginia Commonwealth University. The character of the Department would change significantly in the subsequent years. Francis L. Macrina, PhD became the next Chair of the Department of Microbiology & Immunology. He is currently the Vice President for Research at VCU. Dennis E. Ohman, PhD became Chair in 1998.
Postscript and Anecdotes
It would be of some interest to include a few anecdotes of the department based on the personal recollections of this writer (Dr. Hsu) during the mid-1960s. In those days, the department’s effort (as well as that of the other departments) was heavily concentrated in teaching the professional students in medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and nursing. Students were mainly Virginians, who were polite, courteous and by and large interested in being educated. The faculty spent a lot of time in teaching and working with students. The department occupied the upper three floors of the Egyptian Building (built in 1846, ->) after the completion the Phase I of Sanger Hall in 1963. There was a large teaching laboratory on the fourth floor, which could accommodate the entire medical or dental classes of as many as 80 students. That space was utilized almost every day including Saturday mornings during the teaching semesters. Mrs. Carter was in charge of supplying the teaching materials in all the laboratory sessions. The lab benches were always properly set up before the students arrived. The preparatory rooms for the teaching materials on the third floor were appropriately called the “kitchen”, because most of the bacterial culture media were prepared from scratch the old-fashioned way (not commercially supplied) and the glass wares were washed (not disposable). There were at least three support workers in the kitchen. This writer remembers well one day when chatting with the support staff and remarking that “if Mrs. Carter decided not to come in for the day, we could all go home and forget about teaching.” One of them quickly responded, “not quite, we’ll just go downstairs and get Miss Jones.” These two ladies were truly the backbones of the teaching programs in the department. With her extensive laboratory experience in bacteriology, mycology and parasitology, Miss Jones was an invaluable mentor for the junior faculty members in doing their laboratory instructions. Mrs. Carter retired in 1970 after over 40 years of service and Miss Jones in 1971 in the rank of Assistant Professor.
Before Sanger Hall was built, the Department of Pathology also shared part of the space in the Egyptian Building. The two departments enjoyed a cordial and collaborative relationship, in part because of the common interests in diagnostic microbiology. There were ten faculty members in the department. Dr. Reid held a faculty meeting every July, in which the faculty received their teaching and committee assignments for the year. They all went about doing their work in a cooperative manner.
During Dr. Nelson’s tenure, the department built an outstanding collection of teaching specimens in parasitology, with the meticulous assistance of Miss Jones. His lecturing style was that of a classical scholar, as if he was reading a flowery essay. One could tell that he was deeply immersed with those protozoa and helminths. When rare cases of a mysterious amoebic meningoencephalitis first appeared among freshwater swimmers in Virginia in the mid-1960s, Dr. Nelson and Miss Jones isolated the pathogen from the waters and initiated the research on Naegleria at MCV. He retired in 1971.
Dr. Welshimer was highly regarded in clinical bacteriology. He was a consultant in the bacteriology lab of the Johnston-Willis Hospital during most of his tenure. An earlier student recalled that Dr. Welshimer started his bacteriology lectures with a cotton swab sticking out of his nose. His usual daily routine was to stop first in the teaching lab to check the students’ incubators and make sure that their bacterial cultures were growing properly. If he were not in his office or lab during the day, one would most likely find him with some students in the teaching lab. Dr. Welshimer was a pioneer in the investigation on Listeria. He drove around nearby farms, collecting samples from silos to look for the organism. His research led to the naming of the species Listeria welshimeri. He retired in 1985.
Dr. Knighton was a typical Southern gentleman, polite but very strict. Aside from his responsibilities in the School of Dentistry, he was the course director of the dental microbiology class. The word among the dental students was, “when Dr. Knighton speaks, you can hear a pin drop.” He drilled the students with the basics of microbiology. During lab sessions every Friday afternoon around 4:30, when all the lab exercises were done, the room was dead silent. Everyone was studying and no one was in any hurry to go home for the weekend, because Dr. Knighton was to give a quiz at 4:45. Under a new administration in the spring of 1973, the students were allowed to cut classes and free to be disruptive. Dr. Knighton walked out of the class one day and retired.
Because of his specialty in those early days of virology, Dr. Tankersley was a consultant for the A.H. Robins Pharmaceutical Co. At the time of Dr. Reid’s retirement, he thought it was an opportune time for him to accept a position as the Director of Microbiology Research at that company. But then the running joke among the faculty was that, after having spent time in Minnesota, he knew what was to come, so he hightailed out just in time.
Dr. Reid was an unpretentious gentleman, who was always accessible to the junior staff. He was very accommodating in helping them start their career. He had a good sense of humor, often telling amusing stories with a twinkle in his eyes. He and Mrs. Reid were gracious hosts and regularly invited the faculty with their spouses to their home. It set the tone of the working environment in the department. After his retirement to Irvington and later in Williamsburg, Dr. Reid was involved in several community services and maintained a close contact with his former faculty. The old group continued to gather in their home at least once every year or two. Both Dr. Reid and Mrs. Reid died in 1991 within a few months of each other, a gracious couple truly devoted to each other and to those around them.
Photograph of Faculty, Staff & Students in the Department in front of the Egyptian Building, May, 1968.
- Front row (L to R): Everhart, Knighton, Punch, Reid, Welshimer, Tankersley & Nelson,
- Hsu (second row, behind Knighton),
- Miss Jones (third row, with glasses, between Welshimer & Tankersley)
- Mrs. Carter (second row, between Tankersley & Nelson).
We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Jodi L. Koste, the Archivist of the Tompkins-McCaw Library on the MCV Campus, who held the complete set of annual College Bulletins going back to 1838 (under lock and key) and even kept personnel files of early faculty members. The above narrative was written in 2007 by Dr. Hsiu-Sheng Hsu, a faculty member in the Microbiology & Immunology Department since 1964. This work would not be possible without the most enthusiastic and accommodating support of Mrs. Koste and her able assistant, Andrew Bain. We thank both of them, as well as former colleagues, Miss Muriel Jones and Dr. Robert Tankersley, for proofreading this text.