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The Indispensable Forgotten Man: Joseph James Kinyoun and the Founding of the National Institutes of Health
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Perspectives

Kinyoun has long seemed an indistinct and mysterious character in American biomedical science. Was he a seminal figure or merely a man in the right place at the right time whose role might just as well have been filled by another? Was he a visionary who saw and brought about the future of biomedical science, or an ordinary man of average skills? Would the NIH exist today without him, and if so, in what form? What role did he play in the rapid expansion of American microbiology into a century of dominance in the field? These are questions that cannot now, and perhaps may never, be answered. Kinyoun lived at a time when microbiology, epidemiology, and public health practice came together as a powerful new tool yet to be disentangled into separate disciplines. He seems to have been comfortable with new technology and new ideas, and was able to anticipate their potential importance long before it became apparent to most others. Kinyoun seems to have seen medical research as an exciting new way to be a better physician and citizen. In pursuing medical and public health problems, the record suggests that every step Kinyoun took, even in the most rigorous of experimental research, was directed toward the immediate goal of saving lives and alleviating human suffering and not for mere interest’s sake. Whatever he did, no matter how innovative or technical, was never very far from the bedside or from community welfare. His definition of an ideal health officer seems an apt description of himself: “A true physician in every sense of the word, a man of broad views, of progressive spirit… and a large supply of good common sense” (46). In addition to his work in bacterial and mechanical/engineering areas, Kinyoun had at least one unique ability: to draw insightful public health conclusions from complex and technical scientific data.

Kinyoun was born into a romantic antebellum world of frontiersmen, Native Americans, adventurers, war heroes, and old world Southern gentility; he lived to see a modern era of electricity, telephones, movies, radios, automobiles, airplanes, and noisy, hectic urban life. An old-fashioned Southern gentleman with old-fashioned values (even in private letters to worldly wise colleagues, he wrote “d   n” and “h   l” for “damn” and “hell”), Kinyoun ended up a “progressive,” living and achieving success in a modern world that had little interest in old-fashioned ways. It was a world of tremendous progress and large-scale upward mobility that could erase one’s origins. At home with memories of the old South and fanciful Uncle Remus-like tales of antebellum plantation life (18), Kinyoun seems to have easily become a polyglot and internationalist, moving about comfortably in the capitals of Europe and Asia, readily adapting to foreign customs and ways of looking at the world. If there are paradoxes or ironies in Kinyoun’s life story, it is not clear that he appreciated them.

The medical world of his childhood had been one of mysterious miasmas and vague telluric (terrestrial) influences acting upon unpredictable diseases of completely unknown causes, of amputations for bacterial infections, and of bleeding and purging for even mild diseases. He lived to see not only full scientific acceptance of the “germ theory,” a rather obscure notion when he was a child, but also complete public acceptance of it as well. More importantly, he saw the tremendous advances in diagnosis, treatment, and public health that arose from acceptance of the germ theory: not just passive immunotherapies, vaccines, antimicrobials, aseptic surgery, or the beginnings of vaccination against childhood diseases, but also mothers sterilizing rubber nipples in pots of safe boiling municipal water, to place upon bottles of pasteurized milk.

It is natural to want to know what sort of man Kinyoun was. But history is not a tool that can easily probe the essential characters of people long dead. Provisionally, and without attempting to look too closely to find the inner man, Kinyoun appears very much a man of his times: progressive, intelligent, and optimistic, who found himself at the cusp of a dramatic new “epoch,” as he called it (46); and, as is often the case with young men of energy and optimism, especially at a time of rapid scientific/technical advances, was able to intuitively recognize and understand it, and to find a comfortable place at its leading edge. Kinyoun seems to have been most at home in the certainty of experimental science and established conclusions, attracted to order and regimentation, a “by the books” conformist, an innovator but an even better adapter. At the same time, he was an original and broadly oriented “big thinker” and an altruist to whom science was an instrument of human good.

Kinyoun’s private correspondence suggests a thorough enjoyment of both his career and personal life, including an unusually intimate and caring family life with strong ties to many friends and family members around the country. He appears to have been scholarly and well-read, thoughtful, reflective, rational, careful, old-fashioned, sensitive, sentimental, loyal, patriotic, full of wit and wry, often facetious and even sarcastic humor, and a pacifist and internationalist but an opponent of colonial expansion. He was also frequently self-doubting, stubborn, fatalistic, moralistic, prone to wounded pride, occasionally prickly and defensive when he felt unfairly treated, and oriented toward hierarchy and following orders. Kinyoun’s perhaps self-justifying view of criticism that he was single-minded and inflexible was that he was instead outspoken and honest, unafraid of going against popular opinion, and incorruptible—traits that he referred to as “Kinyounism,” turning around a pejorative term used by the San Francisco newspapers working against him in 1900. Scientifically circumspect and conservative, he was also personally imaginative, creative, and sometimes effusive in a perhaps characteristically Southern way.

By all accounts a humble man, Kinyoun remained strongly service-oriented and never outwardly sought leadership positions, promotions, or influence. When offered a highly paid position at Chicago’s Rush Medical College, he turned it down on the grounds that, having received most of his training and experience in government service, he had an obligation to use his abilities to serve his country (38). His few leadership positions were mostly officerships in professional societies and were generally associated with hard work and service rather than personal fame or control over others. He seems to have been most content behind the scenes, a consummate team player, repeatedly giving ideas, data, and credit to others, often not even publishing his own work but always sharing it widely. Though soft-spoken, gentlemanly, and nonconfrontational, Kinyoun does not appear to have been shy. In national and international meetings, he spoke often, authoritatively, and with the force of logic—avoiding conclusions beyond what the data established, rarely speculating, and always being fair to multiple sides of an issue. When he spoke, his opinions appear rarely to have been challenged by others. He clearly held his own in discussions and friendly debates with virtually all the American and European leaders in microbiology, immunology, and infectious diseases of his era. His opinions and assistance were widely sought by many leading scientists and appear to have been always given generously.

Colleagues seemed to respect him and defer to his experience and wisdom. Many continued to remember and write about him in admiring terms long after he left the national spotlight (1, 36, 106). A North Carolina friend called him “a splendid illustration of a high-grade, cultured Carolina gentleman,” having “a wonderfully well-stored mind of many things calculated to both edify and enlighten” (107). He also exhibited a talent for identifying and mentoring promising men, not only Reed, Rosenau, Geddings, and William Franklin Elgin (1861–1938), but others like John F. Anderson (1873–1958), who became director of the Hygienic Laboratory after Rosenau, and two future Surgeons General: Hugh S. Cumming (1869–1948; serving as Surgeon General from 1920 to 1936), who trained under Kinyoun in the 1890s, and Thomas Parran, Jr. (1892–1968; serving as Surgeon General from 1936 to 1948) (25), a medical student Kinyoun mentored near the end of his life, and in whom he instilled the desire to pursue a career in the Public Health Service (38).

Last Updated August 28, 2012

Last Reviewed August 28, 2012