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Pathologists Throughout History

A few of our favourite famous pathologists and their impacts on healthcare

November 15 marks International Pathology Day 2017, recognising pathology and laboratory medicine’s role in improving global health outcomes.
November 15, 2017

International Pathology Day, celebrated in November each year, recognises pathology and laboratory medicine’s role in improving global health outcomes.  The day was established in 2014 by the Royal College of Pathologists in collaboration with pathology and laboratory medicine institutions across the globe.  Pathology provides some 70% of all the diagnoses which doctors use as the basis for their clinical decisions.  Despite this, it makes up just 2% of global spending on healthcare.  Many pathologists are responsible for breakthroughs in medical practices that have shaped the modern world, so we thought it’s worth mentioning some notable pathologists and the impact they’ve had in the field.


Changing modern medicine as we know it

Rudolf Virchow, 1902.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Let’s start with Rudolf Virchow.  His book, Cellular Pathology was published in 1858 and is regarded as the root of modern pathology.  Of his many achievements, one of the most notable is to discredit ‘humourism,’ the idea that all illnesses were traceable to an imbalance in four primary bodily fluids.  Before Virchow’s work, the concept of ‘humours’ had prevailed as part of Hippocratic medicine, adopted by Ancient Greek and Roman physicians, and later by the wider European medical community.  In Medieval Europe, doctors often diagnosed their patients by observing the urine’s smell, consistency… and taste.  You can thank Virchow that’s not the case today!  As well as being “the father of modern pathology,” Virchow was the first to create a systematic method of the medical autopsy, as well as to analyse hair in a criminal investigation.  True crime fans and the medical community can both tip their caps to the German pathologist.


Medical discoveries and changing attitudes to health

The name Hodgkin is probably best recognised for Hodgkin’s disease, named for pathologist Thomas Hodgkin’s first account of the form of lymphoma and blood disease.  Hodgkin was also one of the earliest proponents of preventive medicine, publishing On the Means of Promoting and Preserving Health in 1841.

Justine Johnstone, 1917.
Photo: Grapefruit Moon Gallery

Another famous name in pathology is Justine Johnstone, but not for her appearances on stage with Fred Astaire.  After giving up performing, she became a pathologist and expert on syphilis.  Johnstone studied at Columbia University and becoming a research assistant to Samuel Hirshberg and Harold T. Hyman.  The team introduced the now-ubiquitous modern I.V. unit with its drip technique.


Nobel Award winners and achievements from Australia

Professor Barry Marshall and Dr Robin Warren, 2011.
Photo: Australia Unlimited

Robin Warren and Barry Marshall were awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize for their work in proving a bacteria’s role in duodenal and gastric ulcers. Together, they initiated a study of biopsies from 100 patients, observing a correlation between the bacteria and signs of inflammation in the tissue.  As an experienced pathologist at the Royal Perth Hospital for more than 30 years, Warren’s work was vital in this research.  To prove the theory that helicobacter pylori was the cause of acute gastric illness, Prof Marshall deliberately infected himself with the bacteria.  All in the name of research!

Work is also being carried out in Australian pathology labs in the fight against antibiotic resistance.  Aussie pathologists have discovered that the milk from Tasmanian Devils contains peptides which could provide an effective antibiotic against the infamous ‘golden staph’ superbug.


Pathologists… in space!

The work of pathologists hasn’t just changed the world; it’s had an effect off the planet as well.  If you’re wondering where a career in pathology could take you, shoot for the stars like Martin J. Fettman, a trained pathologist who flew on NASA Space Shuttle Columbia as a Payload Specialist.  He’s also published over 100 research articles in refereed scientific journals.


Want to get involved?

We encourage students and alumni to participate on social media with the #IPD2017 and #PathologyDay – and acknowledge the past and ongoing work of collection centre staff, drivers, administrative staff, technicians, scientists and pathologists.