William H. Welch

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William H. Welch
Welch as brigadier general circa 1917-1921
1st Dean of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and School of Public Health
Personal details
Born(1850-04-08)April 8, 1850
Norfolk, Connecticut
DiedApril 30, 1934(1934-04-30) (aged 84)
Johns Hopkins Hospital
Baltimore, Maryland
Residence(s)Baltimore, Maryland
EducationYale University
Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, M.D.
OccupationPhysician, pathologist

William Henry Welch (April 8, 1850 – April 30, 1934) was an American physician, pathologist, bacteriologist, and medical-school administrator. He was one of the "Big Four" founding professors at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.[1] He was the first dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and was also the founder of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, the first school of public health in the country. Welch was more known for his cogent summations of current scientific work, than his own scientific research. The Johns Hopkins medical school library is also named after Welch. In his lifetime, he was called the "Dean of American Medicine" and received various awards and honors throughout his lifetime and posthumously.[2]


Early life[edit]

He was born on April 8, 1850, to William Wickham Welch and Emeline Collin Welch in Norfolk, Connecticut. He had a long family history of physicians and surgeons, starting with his grandfather Benjamin Welch. Benjamin was also on the medical forefront of his time, establishing his county's medical association.[3] William H. Welch was educated at Norfolk Academy and the Winchester Institute, a boarding school. His father and a grandfather and four of his uncles were all physicians. William Henry entered Yale University in 1866, where he studied Greek and classics. Initially, Welch was not interested in becoming a physician; his primary ambition was to teach the Greek language.[4] He received an AB degree in 1870. As an undergraduate, he joined the Skull and Bones fraternity.[5]

Welch remained a lifelong bachelor. He was the uncle of Senator Frederic C. Walcott.

Early career[edit]

After a short period of teaching high-school students in Norwich, New York, Welch went to study medicine at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, in Manhattan. In 1875, he received his MD. From 1876 to 1877, he studied at several German laboratories to work with, among others, Julius Cohnheim. This experience abroad prompted Welch to model his plans for a new medical institute on the Institute of the History of Medicine at the University of Leipzig.[4] He returned to America in 1877 and opened a laboratory at Bellevue Medical College (now a part of New York University Medical School).

Later career at Johns Hopkins[edit]

Welch is widely known at the time for his pathology residency program, which later attracted many bright minds from across the country.

In 1884, he was the first physician recruited to be a professor at the newly forming Johns Hopkins Hospital and Medical School at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.[1] By 1886, he had 16 graduate physicians working in his laboratory – the first postgraduate training program for physicians in the country.[1] He helped the trustees recruit the other founding physicians for the hospital – William Stewart Halsted, William Osler, and Howard Kelly. Welch became head of the Department of Pathology when the hospital opened in 1889. In 1893, he also became the first dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and in 1916, he established and led the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, the first school of public health in the country. During this time, Welch was also involved in creating a new medical library for Johns Hopkins. He embarked on a sabbatical in Europe, where he visited the University of Leipzig's Institute and various other universities, as well as libraries and bookstores. These German institutions influenced Welch's design for the Institute of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins, which was established in October 1929.[6] The new institute also built on the already existing Johns Hopkins Hospital Historical Club (est. 1890), of which Welch had been a co-founder.[7] Welch is also the founding editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Caricature of William Welch with his students, by Max Brödel, 1910

Graduates of Welch's training programs were highly coveted as academic physicians. Medical schools and institutes across the country vied for Welch's former students and graduate scientists to fill top posts.[1] Many of his residents went on to become highly prominent physicians, including Walter Reed, co-discoverer of the cause of yellow fever, Simon Flexner, founding director of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, and future Nobel laureates George Whipple and Peyton Rous.

Welch's research was principally in bacteriology, and he is the discoverer of the organism that causes gas gangrene. It was named Clostridium welchii in recognition of that fact, but now the organism usually is designated as Clostridium perfringens.

From 1901 to 1933, he was founding president of the Board of Scientific Directors at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. He was an instrumental reformer of medical education in the United States, as well as a president of the National Academy of Sciences from 1913–1917.[8] He also was president of the American Medical Association, the Association of American Physicians, the History of Science Society, the Congress of American Physicians and Surgeons, the Society of American Bacteriologists, and the Maryland State Board of Health. Welch was a founding editor of the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

Welch served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps during World War I, and played a major role in the response to the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. He remained in the Reserve Corps for three years thereafter, attaining the rank of brigadier general (O7). For his service during the war, Welch received the Distinguished Service Medal.[9]


Welch died on April 30, 1934, at the age of 84, of prostatic adenocarcinoma at Johns Hopkins Hospital.[2]

Honors and awards[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Johns Hopkins Medicine:The Four Founding Professors. Hopkinsmedicine.org. Retrieved on 2012-03-12.
  2. ^ a b "Dr. William H. Welch". New York Times. May 2, 1934.
  3. ^ Silverman, Barry (July 24, 2011). "William Henry Welch (1850–1934): the road to Johns Hopkins". Proceedings (Baylor University. Medical Center). 24 (3): 236–242. doi:10.1080/08998280.2011.11928722. PMC 3124910. PMID 21738298.
  4. ^ a b c d e "Chronology of the Life of William Henry Welch". Chesney Medical Archives of the JHMI. Retrieved March 31, 2015.
  5. ^ William Henry Welch and the Heroic Age of American Medicine by Simon Flexner and James Thomas Flexner Johns Hopkins University Press (1993). ISBN 0801845017
  6. ^ Institute of the History of Medicine history. Welch.jhu.edu. Retrieved on 2012-03-12.
  7. ^ Flexner, Abraham H. (1946), Daniel Coit Gilman: Creator of the American Type of University, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, p. 141.[dead link][ISBN missing]
  8. ^ "William Welch". www.nasonline.org. Retrieved 2024-03-11.
  9. ^ Gilman, James K. (2017-03-01). "The Brief Military Career of Dr. William H. Welch". Military Medicine. 182 (3–4): e1831–e1834. doi:10.7205/MILMED-D-16-00190. ISSN 0026-4075. PMID 28290967.
  10. ^ Medicine: Gold-Headed Cane, Time magazine, June 4, 1923, retrieved 2024-02-24
  11. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved 2024-03-11.
  12. ^ "William Henry Welch | American Academy of Arts and Sciences". www.amacad.org. 2023-02-09. Retrieved 2024-03-11.
  13. ^ Welch Library:history. Welch.jhu.edu (2008-07-15). Retrieved on 2012-03-12.
  14. ^ "William H. Welch Medal | American Association for the History of Medicine". www.histmed.org. Retrieved 2017-02-16.
  15. ^ "William H. Welch, M.D. ("the Dean of American Medicine") ‹ Back to Welch surname". GENi. GENi. February 20, 2015. Retrieved March 31, 2015.

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Silverman, Berry (2011). "William Henry Welch (1850–1934): the road to Johns Hopkins". Proceedings (Baylor University. Medical Center). 24 (3): 236–242. doi:10.1080/08998280.2011.11928722. PMC 3124910. PMID 21738298.