Prudden, Theophil Mitchell


Dates:         b. 1849; 1878 to College of Physicians and Surgeons; retired 1909; d. 1924

Locations:    Assist. in Pathology and Dir. of the Laboratory of the Alumni Assoc. of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, (1878); Dir. of the Laboratory, (1882‑1892); Consulting Pathologist, New York Board of Health, (1887); Prof. of Pathology, Columbia University, (1892‑1909); Consulting Pathologist, St. Luke’s Hospital (1896‑1922); Member of Board of Scientific Directors, Rockefeller Institute, (1901); Member of the Public Health Council of State of New York (1914); Member of International Health Board, 1921

Training:      PhB Sheffield Scientific School, 1872; MD Yale 1875; in Heidelberg under Arnold 1876; with Koch in 1885

Fields:        medical; public health

Publications: with Delafield Handbook of Pathological Anatomy and Histology 1st ed. 1885; called A Text‑book of Pathology by the 6th ed. in 1901; "Glimpses of the Bacteria," Harper'sMagazine (1891); The Story of Bacteria (3 editions); Dust and Its Dangers (2 editions); Drinking‑water and Ice Supplies and their Relations to Health and Disease (2 editions); "A New Outlook in the Conquest of Disease," Review of Reviews Jan. 1921; Find, "Glimpses of Bacteria," in Harper's in 1891; On the Great American Plateau (1904) [in ASM Prudden Honorary Member File.] “On Koch’s Methods of Studying the Bacteria, Particularly those Causing Asiatic Cholera,” in Report of Conn. State Bd. Health for 1885

SAB Involvement:  Charter SAB member; elected honorary member 1901;

Archive Files: See, Lillian E. Prudden's biography, published in 1927.  Also, Simon Flexner's obit. Science Nov. 1924.  Most of his letters and archives were originally stored at the Rockefeller Inst.; the New York Academy of Medicine; and Yale University; Ludwig Hektoen, "Biographical Memoirs of Theophil Mitchell Prudden," Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Science 12 4th memoir (1928): 73‑97; ANB; DSB; DAB; obit in NY Dept. Health Health News 1:16, April 21, 1924



     Prudden comes from an established, puritan descendant family in Milford Connecticut, who had only moderate means.  At the Sheffield School, he wrote a thesis on "The Anatomy and Habits of the Larger Fiddler Crab".  After graduation, Prudden was part of a dredging expedition at the Bay of Fundy, and participating in a rather typical naturalist study.  In 1873, he accompanied a westward expedition with Professor Marsh, who discovered the prehistoric three‑toed horse.  The expedition was during the Modoc Indian War, and the naturalists were accompanied by an escort of soldiers, and Prudden wrote of this account for the New York Tribune.

     In 1874, he went with George Hawes on a trip through the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina, gathering rare plants and studying rocks and human nature.  "After they had succeeded in disarming the suspicion which their vagaries in going about with hammers and long tin boxes had aroused, they even penetrated into the haunts of the secret stills."  (Prudden 1927, p. 22)  This is an odd mix of exploration, and Appalachian culture.

     Prudden arrives at the College of Physicians and Surgeons via Welch, who himself was offered the job, but could not leave Bellevue.  Prudden worked under Francis Delafield, and after a few short years had many students visiting his laboratory to learn to stain the tubercle bacillus (e.g., Hodenpyl and Trudeau).  Trudeau's autobiography describes the process whereby one had to "bring out the bacillus on the slides."  During that time, the examinations and counts were hardly routine.  The lab always ran in the red, and Prudden covered the deficit out of his own pocket.

     In a Report of the Laboratory from 1886‑1887, Prudden notes the role of Koch's methods on the introduction of bacteriology to pathology.  "When Koch's paper on tuberculosis was published, in 1882, tuberculosis tissues and sputum became at once the centers of interest, and were demonstrated in the pathological courses with the practical teaching of technique.  We began cultivating on solid media along in 1883‑1884, with such improvised utensils as we could muster."  (L. Prudden 71)

     Prudden was involved in Biggs production of antitoxin, paying for the room and horses which were given to Biggs and Park.  The list of part or full‑time pupils is impressive:  James Ewing, W.H. Park, Francis Carter Wood, Augustus Wadsworth, Mathhias Nicoll Jr., John Winters Brannan, J. West Roosevelt, Walter B. James, John S. Thacher, Charles Norris, David Bovaird, George Tuttle, Rowland G. Freeman, John S. Ely, Alvah H. Doty, George A. Soper, and Hans Zinsser.

     At the request of the Connecticut Board of Health, Prudden returned to Germany in 1885, in an attempt to study with Koch and Hueppe, and returned with a mastery of Koch's technique for cholera study and treatment.  He urged the Board to appoint a bacteriologist and establish a laboratory for examination of water, milk, food, and for research on a plan similar to that of agricultural experiment stations, possibly connected to some existing institution like a medical school.  In fact, Prudden claimed that the "physical well‑being of the race" depended on the application of preventive and prophylactic methods that could be derived only from bacteriological research.

     In 1885, Timothy Matlack Cheesman began to give instruction in Prudden's laboratory, under a course entitled "A Study of Bacteria in their Relations to Disease."  It was given to a few qualified workers.  In 1887, the course was offered to graduates in medicine, and Cheesman delivered a course that was essentially a duplication of Koch's 1885 course.  In 1887, a "Course in Pathology and Bacteriology" was offered to undergraduates, and bacteriology became a required theme for medical students.

     This was also the time when Prudden authored a series of popular writings on the relations of water and ice supplies and dust to health and disease:  "they were read eagerly; and served effectively in spreading the knowledge on which public health, hygiene, and the modern diagnosis and treatment of infectious diseases are based." (L. Prudden, quoting Hektoen 61).  These writings were "lightened and even made amusing by many an apt allusion or judicious pleasantry."  (L. Prudden 90).  He devoted considerable effort to studying the bacteriology of ice, and demonstrated the necessity of controlling ice fields and artificial ice.  Frederick Gay contends that Prudden was drawn to popular writing to support his very meager income. 

     In Flexner's obituary, he claims that Prudden brought bacteriology to New York, "research was begun and courses of instruction in the subject were at once offered to students; and the tenets of the new science were made practically potent through the influence which Prudden exerted upon the officials of the city department of health and by a well‑considered newspaper campaign carried out anonymously over a period of years.  It is no accident, therefore, that the department of health of New York presented itself as well advanced in applying to public health measures the teachings of new hygiene."  (L. Prudden 53) Prudden was carrying about 20 advanced students per year, and was the focus a new medical social world.  "For a long time he was the central figure in the scientific medical life of New York City."  (L. Prudden 65)

     Wadsworth remembers Prudden as rare individual, one with a talent for "pure research combined with the ability and desire to apply the latest results of scientific investigation to the amelioration of conditions which affect the welfare and happiness not merely of individuals, but of the human race as a whole."  He was a disinterested expert, one who "carried the spirit of true scientific investigation" to public affairs. (quoted by L. Prudden 80)  His influence was almost always behind the scenes.  Prudden was the embodiment of public hygiene and preventive medicine.  He was a consulting bacteriologist for the city health dept; a member of the Board of Scientific Directors of the Rockefeller Inst. and of the International Health Board; and a member of the New York State Public Health Council.  He submitted reports to city officials, drafted bills, prepared resolutions, framed amendments to sanitary codes, and wrote many editorials for the leading New York newspapers.  "On occasions he was appointed as a representative of some scientific or municipal body to appear before the United States Senate or the Legislature in Albany to offer a formal protest against the passage of some bill inimical to public health."  (Wadsworth in Prudden 82)

     Additionally, Prudden was active in the framing of quarantine measures.  As a member of the New York Quarantine Station Consulting Board, he opposed the deportation of tuberculous individuals.  This move was prompted by the Treasury Dept. acting upon recommendation of the Surgeon‑General of the Marine Hospital Service, and the New York Academy of Medicine "deeply deplores this decision, which is not based either on clinical experience or on scientific experiments."

     More than later bacteriologists, Prudden shared the hygienic vision of the Progressive Era, issuing public announcements that ice cut from the Hudson River is filled with bacteria which may cause disease, especially typhoid fever, and that these imprisoned bacilli may live for 103 days.  He also stated that it was the "duty of the hour to clean and sprinkle the streets."  He was a public health reformer, insisting that even hospitals sweep and dust wards and assembly rooms according to sanitary methods.   He answered letters concerning what amount of air was desirable for sleeping rooms, what is the best method of disinfection, what kind of microscope a young doctor should purchase, etc. Prudden urged the adoption of a city sanitary code authorizing the inspection and licensing of milk dealers.  But this was still very scientific, as he employed an exceedingly delicate instrument, called the koniscope, for the accurate determination of the ultimate number of dust particles in the atmosphere. 

     He and Biggs pushed for signs posted in all public places warning against spitting on the floor, as well as the prohibition of common knives, forks and spoons on free lunch counters, or roller towels in saloons and restaurants.  In articles for magazines such as Outlook, the Christian Herald, and Harpers, Prudden informed readers on the best ways of sweeping and dusting, obtaining a pure water supply for the rural households, and how to live beyond three score and ten.  His goals were two‑fold, to instruct persons of authority and to build up an intelligent public opinion which would demand improvements and support those who were trying to introduce them.  Prudden firmly believed that health was secured through improving and ameliorating the surroundings in order to safeguard the requirements for healthy living.

    Prudden had an oddly democratic image of bacteriological work.  When given new quarters in 1887, he remarked:  "We have reached the period when our efforts need no longer be confined chiefly to the instruction of undergraduate students in elementary themes, but can enlarge the scope of our work by more determined and systematized efforts toward the fostering of research, not alone by the official worker in the laboratory but by any competent person who can find time to avail himself of the facilities of an established and well‑furnished laboratory."  (L. Prudden 71.)

     His own studies were varied.  In 1889, Prudden published a study of 24 asylum and hospital children with throat infections resembling diphtheria.  He found, however, only streptococci, and determined that they were the cause of illness.  In fact, he concluded that there were a whole range of mixed membranous throat infections secondary to measles, scarlet fever, and the like.  But, two years later, Prudden confirmed Loeffler's findings, only to suggest that secondary infections of pneumonia and streptococcal infections were the cause of many fatalities.  This was a difficulty for those trained on the isolation basis of diphtheria diagnosis.  In all, of the 74 articles or books, only 28 dealt directly with bacteriology.

     In Hektoen’s obituary for the NAS in Nov. 1925, he has a great description of the GOLDEN AGE:  "And the epochal discoveries of Pasteur and Koch just at this time (early 1880's) were bringing in the microbic era with its wonderful progress in knowledge of infection and of prevention and treatment of infectious disease.  It was a glorious period for medical science." (L. Prudden 55)

     In 1891, the College was turned over to Columbia, and in 1895‑1896, a laboratory course, entitled Bacteriology and Hygiene, was required of all first year medical students.  Prudden gave a great definition of a skilled pathologist at that time, one who "must know accurately and fully the structure of the body, both gross and microscopic, so that he may be able to determine all the changes in every part caused by disease or injury...For this reason he must have a practical knowledge of germs and their action in causing disease; of poisons, their nature and how they act; of various mechanical injuries and their effects; and of the many social conditions and habits which may lead to disease and death."  However, the skilled pathologist also had a knowledge of "modern chemistry which alone will enable him to recognize various diseases" and must be "an experienced observer of all the marks of disease and injury in the body and be able to coordinate, summarize and record his observations in a form suitable for scientific and legal purposes."  (L. Prudden 73)

     In 1899, Prudden, Biggs and Loomis, pathologists to the Board of Health of New York City, delivered a report on the nature and mode of spread of infection in tuberculosis, documenting the principles that tuberculosis could be prevented, as it was a contagious and not hereditary disease.

     There's a recognition of the importance of biology to medical science in the 6th edition of the textbook, as the preface stated that it was wise to dwell on the relationships of pathology to allied phases of biological science and to view pathology as one aspect of the diverse manifestations of life and of energy, rather than as belonging to a special and exclusively human domain."  (L. Prudden 59, quoting Hektoen)

     Prudden was consulted by the Rockefeller folks regarding the development of an Institute.  He called for an institute along the lines of Pasteur Institute, but also linked "to a far reaching system of public education in sanitation and hygiene" and might be called "an Institute of Hygiene and Medical Research."  "It is safe to say that four‑fifths of the existing suffering from disease and its attendant discomfort and misery are avoidable through the diffusion and application among the people of the knowledge of disease and its causes, which science has recently brought to light and which is now largely ignored.  Such an institute if founded in a great city would find some of its most immediate as well as beneficial achievements along the line of popular instruction by museums, by text, by lectures on the ways of securing and maintaining health."  (From Prudden to Seth Low, Spt. 19, 1900 and reprinted in L. Prudden 282‑283)

     His devotion from 1892 onward was not really to bacteriology, but archaeology.  He acquired by exploration and purchase a collection of about nine hundred articles illustrative of the life of cliff dwellers, which he carefully labeled and arranged for exhibition to his friends.  Prudden endeavored to establish himself as a legitimate explorer and outdoorsman.  He published a number of articles in Harpers from 1896 to 1898, resembling a travelogue or exploration narrative.  Lillian Prudden suggests that it "is a real contribution to the literature of travel, since it pictures vividly what impressed a keen‑eyed observer."  This was the combination of the taxonomic eye of bacteriology with the acquisitive drive of exploration and travel.  Prudden even had an article published in American Anthropologist on the "Prehistorical Ruins of the San Juan Watershed”.  This travel narrative cum scientific account has all the elements of the genre.  "You must command a certain hardiness to face the long miles of arid trails, the fierce sudden storms, and the relentless sun.  You must know how to make a little food go a long way...You must be able to find the meager springs and waterpockets...You had better know the point of view of the owner of large tracts in this vast waste, the Indian, who is prone to make merry in no pleasing fashion with the obvious tenderfoot.  If you can make it plain to the brown brother that you are not less at home in the open country than he is, and still possess the somewhat mysterious capacities of the white man, you may find in him a helpful and interesting companion in your untrammeled holiday."  (L. Prudden 132)

     The venture into the wilderness was an escape from the filth of the industrial city:  "In fact, your risks of being sandbagged on the streets some night in New York, or of contracting typhoid fever through the criminal carelessness of a New England dairyman, or of acquiring tuberculosis in a Pullman sleeper, or in the average hotel, are far greater than the hazards of reptiles in the Southwest."  (L. Prudden 133)  

     All the trials of conquest were present.  Prudden cured a severe case of malaria with quinine.  When confronted by angry medicine men, Prudden went to smoke with his doubting challenger.  After four hours of silent pipe smoking, "Prudden drew from an inner pocket a mysterious biconvex reading lens," and lit his tobacco.  "This was too much for the Indian medicine man; his mysteries were outclassed!"  (L. Prudden 135.)  Conversely, Prudden cherished the abandonment of his lab persona. 

     In an address to the Yale Medical School in 1897, Prudden recounted his "wandering" to the great Southwest "where still fast dwindling groups of the real Americans cherish quaint customs and linger among the superstitions of vanished centuries.  And Fortune made me for a time a guest in a small tribe of these Indians, as yet almost untouched by the blighting finger of what to us is civilization.  I was drawn to them in this way."  He then tells of a "woebegone dark fellow," seized by spirits, who, with his squaw, was heading off for some quiet place to die.  "All this was gathered from lip and gesture and pantomime as he lingered with us."  Prudden cured his malaria, and the grateful Indian was astonished by his curative powers without chant, rattle or dance.  (L. Prudden 138) 

     Prudden also recounts taking a Navajo Indian to the Grand Canyon.  The Indian, having never seen the gorge, walked to the edge, let out an exclamation, turned his back, smoked a cigarette and went to sleep.  The rest of the trip, he never paid attention to the grandeur of nature.  (142)