The Work of Udo Wile
The story of the deans of the Medical School in the Winter
2000 issue is fascinating. As someone particularly interested
in medical history, I was struck by the remarks of Dean Victor
Vaughan in introducing Udo Wile, the newly appointed head of
dermatology: "My Christian friends, students of the medical
school, it now becomes my pleasure to introduce a new member
of the medical faculty. I shall not ask him to speak. I merely
want him to stand up so that you will not mistake him for a
freshman." (Wile apparently had been told beforehand that
he would be asked to make a speech at this gathering, and was
filled with some fear and trepidation.) Vaughan's comments seem
to have been a double joke at Wile's expense. One joke is straightforward,
the other a bit more subtle, for Wile was one of the first departmental
chairs of Jewish background. In his history of the Medical School,
Horace Davenport has described the religious, racial and sexual
discrimination present in the Medical School and the larger
society during the early years of the 20th century.
Issues of ethnic and religious identification aside, Udo Wile
(1882-1965) was a fascinating individual. Some aspects of his
career should interest readers of Medicine at Michigan.
His obituary in the New York Times noted that "he
discovered filterable viruses responsible for two contagious
skin diseases (warts and molluscum contagiosum)." In experiments
on himself and a few assistants, Wile showed these diseases
could be transmitted by intracutaneous injections. Reading these
articles many years after the work was done, one may question
the objectivity and advisability of experimentation with live
viruses on oneself and subordinates.
Even more controversial was some of his work on the disease
that interested him most, syphilis. In 1913 he reported the
results of brain biopsies on paretic individuals. The biopsies
were made by two German investigators whom Wile had observed
on a visit abroad. Live spirochetes were found in the brain
tissue. Wile felt the work of these researchers was very important.
Although there was no efficacious therapy available for the
subjects at that time, there was hope that medical advances
would eventually allow treatment before cortical damage became
too great. Wile suggested that the presence of living spirochetes
in paretic brains disproved the widespread notion that paretics
could not transmit syphilis. Wile then biopsied the brains of
six paretic patients at Pontiac State Hospital, and found live
spirochetes in five. He injected the organisms obtained from
these patients into the testicles of rabbits, and found the
rabbits were easily infected. When a group named the "Vivisection
Investigation League" described Wile's work as nontherapeutic
experiments on helpless patients in public institutions, the
lay press publicized the issue widely, in a highly emotional
manner. The Rockefeller Institute and the AMA felt obliged to
Dean Vaughan justified Wile's research on the basis of potential
usefulness to humanity and stated the patients suffered no pain
or injury from the brain biopsies. Vaughan said this was only
an ethical question of informed consent. The larger issue of
America's entry into World War I helped push Wile's work into
the background. The AMA developed an official policy on human
experimentation 30 years later, in the wake of evidence of Nazi
medical experiments. Disclosure of the Tuskeegee study of non-treated
syphilis came later.
Beyond the historical interest of this story, I hope this note
conveys some of the relevance of these issues today, and the
potential for future articles in Medicine at Michigan.
James G. Ravin
Maurice Seevers' Contributions to Pharmacology
A man who should not be overlooked in the history of the University
of Michigan Medical School is Maurice Seevers, M.D., Ph.D.,
who served as chair of the Department of Pharmacology from 1942
Pharmacology Department faculty
in 1951: from left, Maurice Seevers, Maynard Chenoweth,
Mark Nickerson, Lauren Woods, and Frederick Shideman.
Third from right is Dorothy Overbeck, departmental secretary.
Dr. Seevers' expertise in toxicology was known throughout the
U.S., and he was consulted frequently by industrial and drug
companies. I worked with him on one situation in which workers
of an industrial engineering company were dying of acute massive
pulmonary edema. This company was obtaining from a large industrial
firm a product which was mixed carbon, sulfuric acid and a catalyst,
and quickly troweled on the interior of paper pulp digesters
to produce a non-reactive resin. Previously there had been no
problem. Within a few weeks we solved the problem using rodent
exposure chambers. With the help of the firm we identified the
substance producing the pulmonary edema and learned that the
firm had changed the catalyst for the preparation of the substance
provided to the engineering company. The procedure was promptly
Dr. Seevers added much to the reputation of the University
of Michigan by his contributions to the discipline of pharmacology
internationally. Because of his work on opiate addiction he
served on the World Health Organization Addiction Committee
and in the 1960s was appointed to the President's Commission
on Tobacco because of his international reputation as an expert
in toxicology. It was that commission that recommended that
cigarettes be labeled as hazardous to human health.
Dr. Seevers believed in helping faculty and graduate students
in pharmacology to progress in their research. At times he would
be blunt, but his word was good. He expected candor and honesty
by all the employees in the department. Yet he was considerate
in many ways.
In the 1950s Dr. Seevers participated in a visit by several
groups of physicians to Japan sponsored by the American Friends
Service Committee. Because he saw the need for special training
of Japanese scientists and physicians, he began contacts on
his own to bring them to Ann Arbor to study or consult. This
activity reflected the generous and thoughtful attitude of Dr.
Seevers even though Japan was one of our worst "enemies"
in World War II. He was awarded the highest decoration of the
Japanese emperor. Because of his international reputation and
experience, Dr. Seevers also attracted scientists from many
other countries, including Mexico, Turkey, India, Scotland,
and Switzerland to Michigan for special training. Faculty and
students in the Department of Pharmacology benefited from these
For some people, Seevers' standing was tarnished by his role
in asking the late Mark Nickerson, associate professor of pharmacology
who went on to build a strong pharmacology career in Canada,
to leave the Medical School during the McCarthy era of the 1950s.
But it should be remembered that in his time Maurice Seevers,
who died in 1977, was a stalwart member of the University community,
and a generous, thoughtful and honest individual.
Lauren A. Woods
Professor Emeritus of Pharmacology and Toxicology and Emeritus
Vice President for Health Sciences
Medical College of Virginia
Virginia Commonwealth University
Remembering a Friend
Andrew H. Foster
I was greatly saddened by reading of the death of my friend
from the Medical School, Andrew H. Foster (M.D. 1982) in the
Fall 1999 issue of Medicine at Michigan. Drew and I met
each other on the first day of med school and were close friends
the whole way through. We dissected the same cadaver in gross
anatomy. I hadn't spoken to Drew for 10 years. I was looking
through the magazine hoping to see a picture of Drew as the
new chief of thoracic surgery (at the George Washington University
Medical Center) and was stunned to read of his passing. Drew
was my best friend in med school and I loved him as a brother.
I always believed that when work and family allowed room, I
would seek him out, but sadly this never came to pass.
I'm adjusting to the reality that my friend is gone and I've
written to his widow, Margaret, with the flood of memories of
Drew. I tell my patients when things like this happen it's to
remind us how precious life is and to teach us to appreciate
the loved ones in our life, but it still hurts.