Sedgwick, William Thompson


Dates:         b. 1855; at Yale 1874; at hopkins 1881; at MIT, 1883; died in 1921.

Locations:    Johns Hopkins (1881); Prof. Biology, Massachusetts Inst. of Technology (1883‑); Mass. State Dept. of Health; Lawrence Experiment Station; Advisory Board of the Hygienic Laboratory

Training:      Sheffield Scientific School PhB 1877; two years of medical school; PhD in Biology from Hopkins 1881

Fields:        sanitation engineering; public health; water; milk

Publications: Principles of Sanitary Science and Public Health (1902); The Human Mechanism with Theodore Hough (1906); General Biology with E.B. Wilson 1886; A Short History of Science with H.W. Tyler (1917); editorial staff of Journal of Infectious Diseases

SAB Involvement:  chairman of the SAB organizing committee; Charter SAB member; 1st SAB president 1900; Chair, SAB Comm. on Publication 1903‑1904; SAB Council Member 1904; SAB delegate to AAAS 1906; Sec. of the Lab Section of APHA 1901; SAB Honorary Member 1911

Presidential Address:  “The Origin, Scope, and Significance of Bacteriology” Science 13: 121-128. (first page only; full text requires subscription)

Archive Files: 2‑1XC, Fold 77 (Boston Regional File); "Symposium on History of Bacteriology in Northeast", by S.C. Prescott; See also, Jordan, Whipple and Winslow's biography, and "The Life and Works of William Thompson Sedgwick," by Prescott in Technology Review April 1921; Biological Studies, by the Pupils of William Thompson Sedgwick, Published in Commemoration of the Twenty‑Fifth Anniversary of his Doctorate ed. Calkins. (1906); Sedgwick's "From Peace to War, from War to Victory, From Victory to Just Judgment," Journal of the New England Water Works Association 32 (1918), p. 189; S.C. Prescott, "Professor Sedgwick ‑‑ His Life and His Work," Journal of the Boston Society of Civil Engineers (Jan 1948): 79‑81; E.O. Jordan, "William Thompson Sedgwick," J. of Infect. Dis. 28 (1921); i‑ii; ANB; DAB J. Bact. VI:3, 1921; Nat. Cyc. American Biog. 13, 1906



     Educated at Yale's Sheffield, Sedgwick was a close friend of E.B. Wilson, and a student of Brewer and R.H. Chittenden, serving as an assistant in the latter's chemistry course.  On graduating, he enrolled in the Yale medical school.  In 1879, he and Wilson applied for fellowships at Hopkins.  From 1881 to 1882, he was an associate at Johns Hopkins, studying yeasts and molds.  At Hopkins, Sedgwick was persuaded by Martin to abandon his medical studies, and complete a PhD in 1881.  For the next two years, he served as Associate in Biology.

     Jordan et al. claim that "Throughout his career, it was to the fundamental science of biology that Sedgwick owed his primary intellectual inspiration.  He was at bottom not a physician, not an engineer, not a social worker, not even a bacteriologist or a sanitarian.  He was in a measure all of these things, but he was above all a biologist; and through all his work, in theory and in practice, the biologist’s viewpoint of the human machine and its relation to its environment was a dominant motif."  (20)  Sedgwick was strongly influenced by Huxley's A Liberal Education and The Physical Basis of Life, and he passed this on to his students, who "were not mere technicians who regarded the diphtheria bacillus as a bacillus which produced diphtheria toxin and let it go at that; they were biologists, trained to consider the life processes of a fascinating group of living things.  The sanitarians who graduated under his guidance were taught to look beyond technical requirements and administrative procedures to the psychological problems involved in the makeup of a complex social organism."  (20)  This says as much about Jordan et al's vision as it does anything else.

     In 1882, Sedgwick (at Hopkins) delivered a lecture on fermentation to the members of the B. & O. Railroad, noting that "new" microbes were the cause of infectious disease.  When he came to MIT in 1883 as an associate professor of biology, he taught his students some bacteriology in an informal manner.   Delivered lectures on Germs and Germicides to senior students in the Department of Natural History who were preparing to enter the medical profession.  Similar lectures, with lab work, were given under different titles in succeeding years.  No full course was present until 1887.  Then it was a required subject for all senior students in biology.  Mostly interested in practical side of water and milk bacteriology.  By 1888 he argued strongly for training water and sewerage engineers in the fundamentals of biology and bacteriology, and as a result, Course XI, Sanitary Engineering was established.

     His 1886 General Biology was a programmatic vision of biology along Thomas Huxley's notion of the discipline devoted to study the underlying phenomena of protoplasmic action.  Jordan et al claim:  "It is probable that no other single work has exerted so large an influence upon the teaching of the biological sciences in the United States." (115)

     In 1887, he was appointed Consulting Biologist to the State Board of Health of Massachusetts and Lawrence Experiment Station, making weekly visits to advise on new research projects.  In 1890, Sedgwick studied the typhoid epidemic that swept down the Merrimac, personally making 2000 house‑to‑house visits in Lowell and Lawrence to accumulate data.  He also studied typhoid transmission in Springfield and the danger of contact infection in 1892.  His most notable contribution was the development of laboratory methods for the study of microbiology of air, water, ice and milk.  In 1887, he invented an apparatus for the quantitative bacterial examination of air, the 1888 establishment of the Sedgwick‑Rafter method of water analysis; the 1892 study with J.L. Batchelder of the bacterial content of Boston milk, the first use of bacterial counts to evaluate an American supply of milk.

     Among his students were Jordan, Greenleaf R. Tucker, Sidney R. Bartlett, George C. Whipple, George W. Fuller, John L. Batchelder, Severance Burrage, Alpert P. Mathews, Garry N. Calkins, Simeon C. Keith, and Daniel D. Jackson.  Later students were Samuel C. Prescott, Horatio N. Parker, Charles Gilman Hyde, Winslow, Burt R. Rickards, Arthur I. Kendall, S.H. Ayers, H.G. Dyar, Simon deM Gage; Clara E. Ham, M.O. Leighton, E.B. Rickards; Augustus Wadsworth, A.P. Mathews, and Edith A. Beckler.

     In 1893, Theodore Hough came from Hopkins to the Inst. as Assistant Prof. of Physiology, and continued through 1907 to be Sedgwick's closest friend and ally at the Institute.  (He later was Dean of the Medical School at U Va.)  Sedgwick himself taught many differing courses, including:  "General Biology," "Sanitary Science and Public Health," "Comparative Physiology," "Anthropology" and "Natural History."  His personal emphasis on personal hygiene was part of his foremost interest on "the management of the human machine and its adaptation to its changing environment."  (Jordan et al., 41)

     He worked on the studies for the Chicago Drainage Canal.  ERIC ‑‑ check to see if he testified.  Participated in the four years study of typhoid fever in Washington (1906‑1909) with Rosenau et al; good friends with John F. Anderson, Dir. of the Hygienic Laboratory in 1910‑1913; and helped plan the studies of the Potomac and Ohio Rivers in 1913 by the USPHS.  Believed that the USPHS should issue bulletins for distribution among the general public, much in the same vein as the Farmer's bulletins.

     Sedgwick's Principles of Sanitary Science received almost universal praise, the exception being the London Lancet, which published a brief and scornful dismissal of the work as practically worthless.

     At the 1899 meeting of the SAB, Sedgwick and Winslow presented a paper on the "Experimental and Statistical Studies on the Influence of Cold upon the Bacillus of Typhoid Fever, and its Distribution," in which they downplay the importance of contaminated ice.

     Sedgwick, H.W. Hamilton, and F.J. Funk submitted to the 1916 SAB meeting, a paper on "Experimental Studies on the Effects of Various Media upon the Viability of Bacteria at Low Temperatures."

     Interestingly, he was president of the American Society of Naturalists in 1901.  Other offices were:  Pres. Sharon Sanitorium for Consumptives, 1902‑1921; member school Committee, Brookline 1904‑1906; VP and chair Section K (Physiology and Experimental Medicine) of AAAS, 1904‑1905; President of Am. Pub. Health Assoc., 1914‑1915; member International Health Board, 1919‑1921.  As chairman of Pauper Institutions Trustees of the City of Boston, 1897‑1899, Sedgwick had a unique opportunity "to preach the gospel of personal hygiene and this connection had much to do with broadening his conception of the importance of civic health." (Jordan 119)

    He served as chairman of the Executive Committee for the original Simmons Corporation, and established a program in bacteriology.  He and Prescott gave a lecture course on "Sanitary Science and Public Health" from 1902‑1912. 

     Sedgwick was a bit of a nationalist, and a mild militarist.  Speaking before the International Health Conference in Brussels in the summer of 1920, he was quick to praise "brave little Belgium and faithful France for saving the world."  (Jordan et. al., 113)   He rejoiced when the United States, "at last, and for a too‑brief period, emerged from its atmosphere of complacent self‑satisfaction to take its part in the affairs of the world." (Jordan 137)  Sedgwick organized and taught war courses for the training of laboratory technicians, especially young women, to meet the demands created by the national emergency.