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William Henry Welch

William Henry Welch (April 8, 1850 - April 30, 1934) was an American physician and medical school administrator. He was first dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Born in Norfolk, Connecticut, Welch was educated at Norfolk Academy and the Winchester Institute. He entered Yale College in 1866, where he studied Greek and classics. As an undergraduate, he joined the Skull and Bones honorary fraternity.

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. He was also president of the American Medical Association in addition to other prestigious associations. He was a founding editor of the Journal of Experimental Medicine,  which remains a prestigious publication of the Rockefeller University Press to this day.

William Henry Welch was born on April 8, 1850 in Norfolk, Connecticut to William Wickham Welch and Emeline Collin Welch. Six months later on October 29, Emeline Welch died leaving her newly born son and three-year old daughter, Emeline Alice without a mother. While his sister was sent to live with maternal relatives, Welch was reared by his father and paternal grandmother. His father, who came from a long line of physicians, practiced medicine in Norfolk. In 1866 Welch’s father married Emily Sedgwick.

In Norfolk, Welch first attended the Misses Nettleton’s School and then the Norfolk Academy. At the age of 13 he went to the Winchester Institute, a boarding school. In the spring of 1866 he completed his studies at the Winchester Institute.

He entered Yale University in 1866 where he concentrated on Greek and the classics. The four-year curriculum offered very few courses in the sciences. Welch had no interest in becoming a physician; his primary ambition was to become a tutor of Greek. At the end of his junior year he was elected to Skull and Bones, a senior honorary fraternity.

He received the A.B. degree from Yale University in 1877.

From 1870-1871 he helped to organize a new school in Norwich, NY and he taught there for an academic year. German and Cicero were among the courses that he taught. At the end of the school term, he decided to follow family tradition and become a physician. He returned to Norfolk and served as an apprentice to his father.

In 1872 Welch enrolled for several months in a post-graduate course in chemistry at Sheffield Scientific Institute before entering the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City which he attended from 1872 to 1875.   While at Physicians and Surgeons, Welch attended a summer session at Bellevue Medical College and took a course in physical diagnosis at University Medical College. During his second year, Edward Seguin awarded Welch a microscope for the best report on nervous diseases. In his last year he won the college’s coveted thesis prize for a comprehensive study of goiter in the English, German, and French medical literature.  He was awarded the MD degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1875.

Following graduation Welch served an internship at Bellevue Hospital in 1875-76, where Abraham Jacobi engendered his interest in the German medical sciences and Francis Delafield encouraged his study of French medicine. Delafield, a teacher of pathological anatomy, promoted the autopsy as a major source of medical knowledge. Rather than becoming a practitioner, Welch chose to become a researcher of pathological anatomy.

Welch sailed for Europe on April 19, 1876, where he studied at the universities of Strasbourg, Leipzig, Breslau, Vienna, and Berlin.

He began with studies of gross anatomy with von Recklinghausen (pupil of Virchow), normal pathology with Waldeyer, physiological chemistry with Felix Hoppe-Seyler, and heart disease with von Leyden from May to July of 1876.

Then from Aug 1876 to March 1877 he was enrolled in Ernst Wagner’s pathological institute; entered the physiology laboratory of Carl Ludwig; attended Rudolf Leukorts’ daily lectures in comparative anatomy.  Additional studies included courses on the skin taught by Hebru, courses on psychiatry and neurology by Meynert, and on embryology by Waldeyer.

He joined the teaching faculty at Bellevue Hospital Medical College in 1878 where he taught pathological anatomy and general pathology. at Bellevue Hospital Medical College. Welch developed the first laboratory course in pathology in America and founded the first pathological laboratory. The course became very popular, attracting medical students from other schools. He remained until 1884.

He was interviewed in early March 1884 by Daniel Gilman, President of the Johns Hopkins University, and offered the professorship of pathology.  Welch accepted the position on March 31. The offer included another year of travel and study in Europe and funding to set up a pathological laboratory at Johns Hopkins.

While in Europe from Sept 1884 to August 1885 Welch studied the organization and instrumentation of the most renowned laboratories, including those of Koch, Bollinger, Kitt, von Pettenkofer, von Ziemssen, Weigert, Ludwig, Flugge, and Pasteur. There he collected cultures to take to Johns Hopkins and also purchased laboratory instruments and equipment.

In addition to organizing the pathological laboratory, Welch was instrumental in planning the new medical school. He helped to raise funds and recruit faculty, and served as the first dean of the School of Medicine. In addition he held these titles and positions while at Johns Hopkins:

1884-1916 First Baxley Professor of Pathology, The Johns Hopkins University

1889-1916 First Pathologist-in-Chief, The Johns Hopkins Hospital

1893-98 First Dean, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

1916-26 First Director, Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health

In the latter years of his career from 1926 to 1929, Welch turned his focus to the history of the health professions. He proposed an institute modeled on the Institute of the History of Medicine at the University of Leipzig.  During this time Welch was also involved in planning a new medical library, intended to serve all of the health divisions at Johns Hopkins. He embarked on a sabbatical in Europe, where he visited the University of Leipzig's Institute and several other universities, as well as libraries and booksellers. He recruited faculty for the proposed institute and acquired books for the new library. In October 1929, the Johns Hopkins University Institute of the History of Medicine and the William H. Welch Medical Library were dedicated, sharing the same building.

From 1928 to 1934 he served as a member, of the Advisory Board, Johns Hopkins University, Institute for Biological Research, and also during this time (1929-1930) as First Director, The Johns Hopkins University, Institute of the History of Medicine.

Like many members of the Johns Hopkins faculty, Welch went to Europe with the U.S. Army Medical Corps during World War I.  He served in these capacities:

1917 Commanding Major, Medical Reserve Corps;  July 16 Awarded Distinguished Service Medal  

1918 Lieutenant Colonel, February 20  Colonel, July 24.   Honorable Discharge, December 31   

1919 Colonel, Medical Section, Officers’ Reserve Corps, February 24  

1921 Brigadier General, Officers’ Reserve Corps, December 31

Rockefeller Foundation Affiliations:


Welch gave many years of service to the Rockefeller Foundation. He was instrumental in planning and developing the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research and served on various committees and boards concerned with matters of international public health. Welch also served on the Foundation’s China Medical Board, whose mission was to bring western medical education and practice to China. In 1915, Welch went to China with the China Medical Commission (a subcommittee of the China Medical Board) in order to visit hospitals and medical schools and evaluate worthy candidates for Rockefeller funding. The Commission decided to fund the Peking Union Medical College, including a reformed curriculum, new faculty, and several new buildings. In 1921, Welch returned to China with the China Medical Board to attend the dedication of the new Peking Union Medical College.

1901-33 First President of the Board of Scientific Directors, Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research

1909-14 Rockefeller Sanitary Commission

1913-18 Rockefeller Health Commission

1913-15 International Health Commission

1914-28 China Medical Board

1913-32 General Education Board

1914-15 China Medical Commission

1916-27 International Health Board

As a result of his work at Johns Hopkins and with the Rockefeller Foundation, Welch quickly became a widely-respected figure in the fields of pathology, education, and public health. He was called upon to share his expertise with a wide range of public and private institutions. The following is a selection of posts Welch held:

1896 Founding editor of the Journal of Experimental Medicine. Welch’s article on gas bacillus appeared in the first issue.

1898-1922 President, Maryland State Board of Health

1906 U.S. Department of Agriculture Meat Inspection Commission

1906-34 Trustee, Carnegie Institution of Washington

1907-34 Advisory Board, Hygienic Laboratory, U.S. Public Health Service

1913-22 Trustee, Hooper Foundation for Medical Research (University of California)

1915-31 Trustee, Peking Union Medical College

1917 Trustee, Shanghai Medical College

1921 Advisory Board, Gorgas Memorial Institute, Panama

1922 Chairman, Health Advisory Committee, American Red Cross

1922 First President of the Board, Happy Hills Convalescent Home for Children

1922-34 Advisory Committee on the Education of Sanitarians, U.S. Public Health Service

1924-34 League of Nations Health Section

1930 Trustee, American School of Damascus

1931 National Institute of Health, Health Advisory Council

Welch's active involvement in numerous professional associations, reflected his diverse interests. The following list is a selection of the offices Welch held in professional associations:

1891-92 President, Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of the State of Maryland

1897 President, Congress of American Physicians and Surgeons

1901 President, Association of American Physicians

1897 First President, Maryland Public Health Association

1901 President, Society of American Bacteriologists

1906 President, American Association of Pathologists and Bacteriologists

1906-07 President, American Association for the Advancement of Science

1910-11 President, American Medical Association

1910-11 President, National Tuberculosis Association

1913-16 President, National Academy of Science

1916-19 President, American Social Hygiene Association

1920 Founding member, History of Science Society

1920 President, All-America Conference on Venereal Diseases

1923 Organizing Committee, International Committee for Mental Hygiene

1927 President, American Association of the History of Medicine

1928-34 Honorary President, American Foundation for Mental Hygiene

1930 Vice President, International Congress on Mental Hygiene

1931 President, History of Science Society

1932 Continued to lecture, write, and take an active interest in medicine and education, with a special focus on the history of medicine. In 1932, he recalled his experiences in a documentary film entitled "Reminiscences of the Early Days of the Medical (J.H.U.) School and Some Developments of a Most Significant Period in Medical Sciences."

Feb 1933-Apr 1934 Entered the Johns Hopkins Hospital as a patient; he remained there until his death from prostate cancer on April 30, 1934.

Throughout his life, and posthumously, Welch was the recipient of many awards and honors:

1911 Royal Order of the Crown of Prussia

1927 Kober Medal, American Association of Physicians

1928 On March 5 the Trustees of The Johns Hopkins University moved that the new library under construction be named the William H. Welch Medical Library

1931 Harben Medal, Royal Institute of Public Health William H. Welch Professorship in the History of Medicine

William Henry Welch (April 8, 1850 - April 30, 1934) was an American physician and medical school administrator. He was first dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.Born in Norfolk,