Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 817:
HODGKIN'S DISEASE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 817.

Today, a Quaker activist identifies disease -- of several kinds. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

On January 10th, 1832, 34-year-old Thomas Hodgkin took a paper to the Medical and Surgical Society in London. Since he wasn't a member, the Society's secretary had to read it for him. It was a small event. Only eight members were present.

The title was, "Some Morbid Appearances of the Absorbent Glands and Spleen." He introduced what we call Hodgkin's disease. One problem with the illness is that other diseases mimic it. In fact, it's pretty clear in retrospect that only three of seven cases he described were legitimate examples.

Hodgkin's biographer, Louis Rosenfeld, gives him the odd title Morbid Anatomist and Social Activist. Hodgkin was an ardent English Quaker, born in 1798. When he was 21, he went off to learn the rough trade of medicine.

That was an odd move for gentle young Thomas. Medical students were a rowdy, drunken, grave-robbing lot. Still, by the time he graduated in 1823, he'd done well. He'd already helped introduce the stethoscope to English medicine.

He was drawn to new medical instruments. In the late 1820s he worked with Joseph Lister's father in microscopy. Together they made the first accurate description of red cells.

When he gave his paper on this rare lymphatic disease, the English ignored it. They didn't name it after him until late in the century -- long after the Germans had started calling it Hodgkin's Krankheit.

That same year -- 1832 -- England passed the Reform Act. It gave far greater freedom to religious dissidents like the Quaker, Hodgkin. And Hodgkin was already a strong voice for liberal causes. He'd been campaigning for better treatment of Canadian Indians. He'd been corresponding with a Mohawk Chief.

Hodgkin was passionately anti-slavery. He befriended freed slaves at his home. Now that the liberal voice of Hodgkin and others was unleashed, it took England only three more years to abolish slavery. Meanwhile, Hodgkin also raised medical objections to tobacco -- 140 years before our surgeon general did.

The director of his hospital was involved with English colonization and the Hudson's Bay Company. By 1837 he finally drove Hodgkin out. Of course, Hodgkin had damned the Company and was demanding full British citizenship for Indians.

Through all his campaigns for human rights, his medical work steamed ahead. The 1850s found him doing basic work on diabetes. And we, of course, realize what Hodgkin really represented. It was an eye that saw everything in ways others did not. It was the inventive eye that ultimately changes the world it sees.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Rosenfeld, L., Thomas Hodgkin: Morbid Anatomist & Social Activist. New York: Madison Books, 1993.

I am grateful to Jeffrey Scoggins of Detering Book Gallery for suggesting the topic and producing source material for it.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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