Simon Flexner Biography (1863-1946)

pathologist, bacteriologist

Simon Flexner pioneered in field investigations where infectious diseases were potentially epidemic. He discovered the Flexner bacillus, the causeof a common form of dysentery, and the Flexner serum for treating meningitis . His research expertise was already legend when he was selected as the organizing director of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City. For thirty-five years he cultivated the spirit and guided the work of the new institute, while implementing John D. Rockefeller's vision of bringing medicine into the realm of science.

Flexner, the fourth of nine children, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 25, 1863, to Jewish immigrants. His father, Morris, emigrated from Bavaria, first to Strasbourg, France, where he taught school, then eventually to Louisville. He became a peddler and eventually a wholesale merchant of dry goods. Flexner's mother, Esther Abraham, grew up in Alsace and was a dressmaker in Paris before immigrating with her sister to live with relatives in Louisville.

When Morris Flexner's business failed in 1873, the future of his nine children seemed bleak. Young Simon failed to finish sixth grade and his delinquent behavior prompted his father to arrange a tour of the town jail, where, he warned, Simon might end up if he did not change his ways. Young Flexner driftedfrom one menial job to another until he fell victim to typhoid fever at the age of sixteen. But his near-fatal illness transformed him into a self-directed student of science. He began work as a drugstore apprentice while heearned a degree and a medal for excellence at the Louisville College of Pharmacy.

Flexner then taught himself to use a microscope while tending to prescriptions in his brother Jacob's pharmacy. Without books or teachers, he mastered thebasics of histology and pathology as he examined tissue specimens given to him by doctors who patronized the store. Flexner found his calling when he realized that his observations on patients' tissues could aid physicians in their diagnoses of diseases. So, at 26, Flexner earned his medical degree at theUniversity of Louisville, a two-year medical school, although this rudimentary education provided no opportunities to perform either physical examinationsor laboratory studies. A year later, after publishing two papers based on his microscopic observations, Flexner was sent to Johns Hopkins University by his younger brother Abraham, a recent graduate of the school.

In Baltimore, Flexner joined other young physicians studying pathologyunder William Henry Welch , a chief architect of scientific medicine in theUnited States. During the next thirteen years Flexner studied many pathological problems, advancing from Welch's personal assistant to full professor. Hebecame familiar with a wide range of infectious diseases and left behind a harvest of original reports.

In 1893, Johns Hopkins, at the behest of the Maryland Board of Health, sent Flexner to diagnose an epidemic of cerebrospinal meningitis raging among Cumberland coal miners. Tracking the dying men to their cabins on precipitous hillsides to conduct autopsies and collect tissues samples, Flexner quickly determined that the disease was caused by a diplococcus bacteria. In another case,he led an 1899 commission from Johns Hopkins to study the diseases in the Philippines just after the Spanish-American War. While learning about epidemicsof typhoid fever, malaria, dengue, leprosy, and tuberculosis, Flexner made a thorough investigation of dysentery. He succeeded in isolating the bacillus that causes a prevalent form of the disease, an organismnow known as the Flexner bacillus. Upon his return to the States, he becameprofessor of Pathology at the University of Pennsylvania. Two years later, the federal government sent Flexner to investigate an epidemic in San Francisco's Chinatown and, within a month, he had confirmed original suspicions that the disease was bubonic plague.

At the turn of the century, no medical research centers existed in the UnitedStates comparable to the Pasteur, Koch, Pavlov, and Kitasato institutes of Europe and Japan. Most American laboratories were only for instructing students and were primitively equipped. A pioneering effort tocorrect this situation came in 1901 with the founding of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research , created through an endowment by John D. Rockefeller. A year later, its board, headed by William Welch, chose Flexner to headthe new institute, one devoted to investigations into human disease. He relinquished his professorship in Pennsylvania to pursue that for which there wasno assurance of permanence or success.

For over thirty years, Flexner gave the Institute its unique scientific direction. His special genius resided in his respect for individuality and his understanding of the scientific temperament. Although his career had been concerned with pathology of infectious diseases, he established a broad scientificscope and pressed for the application of biochemistry and the physical sciences to studies of human biology.

Flexner brought together a distinguished group of scientists, including Hideyo Noguchi, his protegee from Pennsylvania, S. J. Meltzer , Phoebus Aaron Theodor Levene , Alexis Carrel, Jacques Loeb, Karl Landsteiner, Eugene Opie , Rufus Cole, and Peyton Rous. Attracted by the promise of unlimited experimental freedom and the finest available laboratory equipment, plus an independent endowment from Rockefeller to finance their work, these researchers came from all over the world. John D. Rockefeller's experiment in scientific philanthropy, under Flexner's leadership, created one of the world's greatest biomedical research institutions.

In 1906, soon after the institute's laboratories opened, an epidemic of cerebrospinal meningitis enveloped New York City. Flexner quickly furthered the institute's new mission by developing an antimeningococcus serum from the bloodof inoculated horses. Injected directly into the spinal canal of the victims, the serum reduced fatalities by fifty percent. Flexner continued to supervise the manufacture of thousands of bottles a year, and the Flexner serum remained the best therapy for meningitis until the emergence of sulfa drugs in the 1930s. Four years later, poliomyelitis was epidemic in New York. Flexner and his assistants proved its viral origins and postulated one mode of transmission, but they found no cure. However, because Flexner showed how to transferthe virus from one monkey to another, he enabled scientists in the 1950s tomaintain a pool of the virus for use in successful polio vaccines.

In 1903, Flexner married Helen Whitall Thomas, author of the autobiographicalmemoir Quaker Childhood. Her father, a physician and leading aristocrat in Baltimore, was instrumental in the founding of both Johns Hopkins Medical School and Bryn Mawr College. Helen, whose older sister was president ofBryn Mawr, was teaching English there when she first met Simon Flexner. Their first year of marriage was spent in Europe, where Flexner scouted for scientists to recruit to the Rockefeller Institute, and studied biochemistry in the Berlin laboratory of Emil Fischer. The Flexners had two sons, William Welch, a physicist, and James Thomas, an author of American history, biography, and art. Two of Flexner's own brothers were noted intellectuals. Bernard was awell known lawyer, and Abraham, author of the 1910 report that reformed American medical education, was director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

Although Rockefeller Institute's welfare was uppermost in his mind, Flexner undertook other activities on behalf of medical education, research, and public health. A charter trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation, he contributed tothe establishment of National Research Council fellowships and to the founding of the Peking Union Medical College. When Welch relinquished all interest in The Journal of Experimental Medicine in 1902, Flexner moved it tothe Rockefeller, where he served as editor from 1905 until his death in 1946.

Still at the height of his powers, Flexner relinquished his duties as director in 1935 and spent ten good years in retirement. As Eastman Professor at Oxford University in 1937, he wrote The Evolution and Organization of the University Clinic. Later, he and his son James wrote a biography of William Welch, chronicling the history of medical science in America. During his long career, Flexner published several hundred scientific papers and essays. His contributions were rewarded with honorary degrees from eighteen universities and membership in numerous scientific societies. He was elected a member ofthe National Academy of Sciences (1908), the American Philosophical Society(1901), and the Royal Society of London (1919). On his eightieth birthday, aneditorial in The New York Times called Flexner a guiding genius ofAmerican medical science, noting that "a man of this scientific caliber belongs to the world." He died three years later on May 2, 1946, in New York City,of a coronary occlusion following an operation.

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