ID History Makers: William Augustus Hinton

Whether he was in the lab, the classroom or the community, Dr. William Augustus Hinton was a trailblazer. To this day, his groundbreaking research ripples through the fields of public health and bacteriology. Dr. Hinton invented an innovative blood test for syphilis that became the standard diagnostic tool. Later The test saved many patients from receiving unnecessary treatments and was easier to use than previous methods. Hinton also published books and articles that earned him international recognition as a foremost expert on bacterial and laboratory sciences.

Hinton was a talented educator, training some of the country’s best scientific minds at Harvard University. In 1918 he was appointed a instructor of preventive medicine and hygiene. Just a few years later, his teaching responsibilities grew to include immunology and bacteriology. Hinton was a top student himself at Harvard. The son of formerly enslaved parents, Hinton earned a bachelor of science degree from Harvard in 1905. Hinton went on to teach for several years before enrolling in Harvard Medical School. Hinton won the prestigious Wigglesworth Scholarship, open to all students, two years in a row, and completed his medical degree with honors in just three years.

Despite his exceptional credentials, Boston-area hospitals denied him the opportunity for a career in surgery due to racial prejudice. In search of a new a path to pursue his passion, Dr. Hinton accepted a job teaching serological techniques Harvard’s Wassermann Laboratory. At the same time, he worked as a volunteer assistant at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Department of Pathology. It was here that his work related to syphilis began. Hinton was assigned to conduct autopsies on all individuals who were suspected of dying from the disease. Dr. Hinton went on to become an expert on syphilis, and his blood test was adopted by the US Public Health Service as the gold standard. In 1915, he was named the assistant director of the Wasserman Laboratory, which was acquired by the state of Massachusetts soon afterward. Dr. Hinton was promoted to Chief of the Wasserman Laboratory, a position he would hold for nearly four decades.

Throughout his career, Hinton continued to empower future leaders in the medical fields. In addition to teaching at Harvard, created a first-of-its-kind laboratory technicians training program, available only to women, at Simmons College. In 1949 Dr. William Augustus Hinton was promoted to Clinical Professor of Bacteriology and Immunology, becoming the first Black professor at Harvard University.