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State lab dedicated to Dr. William Hinton

Banner Staff | 1/8/2009, 5:05 a.m.

Gov. Deval Patrick on Monday commemorated the achievements of Dr. William A. Hinton, the first African American professor at Harvard Medical School and an internationally renowned researcher on sexually transmitted diseases, by renaming the Department of Public Health’s State Laboratory Institute in his honor.

The lab will now be known as the Dr. William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute.

“I’m proud to honor a man who overcame so many challenges to make such meaningful contributions in public health,” Patrick said at the Monday ceremony. “Dr. Hinton worked hard to ensure that the doors he had to fight to open remained open for those generations that would follow.”

Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, Department of Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach, elected officials, public health advocates and members of Hinton’s family also attended the ceremony.

“In nearly 30 years of teaching … Dr. Hinton trained generations of physicians, scientists and caregivers,” Bigby said in a statement. “Among his many noteworthy accomplishments, he broke down barriers and created opportunities for others by establishing a training program for female lab technicians at a time when that profession was largely closed to women.”

Patrick is not alone in honoring the work of Hinton. Last November, the Boston History and Innovation Collaborative awarded him its History and Innovation Award. His grandson and great-grandson were in attendance at the award ceremony, held at the Inter-Continental Hotel.

The son of former slaves, Hinton was born on Dec. 15, 1883, in Chicago, Ill. After high school, he studied at the University of Kansas, completing the three-year pre-med program in two years. Hinton did additional undergraduate work at Harvard University, earning his B.S. there in 1905. Four years later, Hinton entered Harvard Medical School. He received his M.D. in 1912.

After graduating, Hinton’s first job was as a serologist at the Wassermann Laboratory of the Harvard Medical School. By 1915, he was named the director of the lab, which at the time had become the official lab for the Massachusetts State Department of Public Health. In 1916, Hinton also became chief of the laboratory department at the Boston Dispensary.

His career was focused on syphilis and the laboratory tests used in connection with its diagnosis and treatment. It is appropriate, then, that Hinton is associated with the state lab — established in 1894, the State Lab Institute provides public health testing services, and laboratory data to aid disease prevention.

In 1927, Hinton developed a test — subsequently known as the Hinton test — to diagnose syphilis. Because it was easier, less expensive and more accurate than previously used tests, the Hinton test was adopted as standard procedure for diagnosing syphilis. Later, with Dr. J.A.V. Davies, Hinton developed another diagnostic test for syphilis, known as the Davies-Hinton test.

Hinton began teaching at Harvard Medical School in 1923, as assistant lecturer in preventive medicine and hygiene. He continued teaching for 27 years.

In 1936, he published what was at the time considered to be a controversial book entitled “Syphilis and its Treatment.” In a 1952 published interview, Hinton explained that that he considered the book his most important contribution because it summed up both his research and the experience he gained through patients in clinics who had syphilis.

“I had learned that race was not the determining factor but that it was, rather, the socioeconomic condition of the patient,” Hinton said. “It is a disease of the underprivileged.”

In addition to his work as a researcher, Hinton was a special consultant to the U.S. Public Health Service and, beginning in 1936, chief of the labs of the Boston Floating Hospital.

In 1949, Harvard appointed Hinton clinical professor of bacteriology and immunology. Hinton retired one year later, in 1950 and three years later retired from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Wassermann Laboratory in 1953.

Hinton died at the age of 75 on Aug. 8, 1959, in Canton, Massachusetts.

Material from medical encyclopedias and the Governor’s Office was used in this report.