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16 August 2019

Hodgkin, Promoter of Preventive Medicine for Everyone

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Although Thomas Hodgkin has gone down in history for discovering the most common cancer among adolescents —Hodgkin’s lymphoma— his greatest legacy was to promote preventive medicine among the most disadvantaged and to incorporate pathological anatomy as a tool for the diagnosis of diseases. This brilliant London doctor, who introduced the use of stethoscopes in the United Kingdom, never achieved sufficient recognition in life. His strong convictions eventually led him away from the daily practice of medicine, to devote himself fully to another of his passions, defending human rights.

Portrait of Thomas Hodgkin. Source: Wikimedia

The son of Quakers from North London who lived by strict religious standards, Thomas Hodgkin (17 August 1798 – 5 April 1866) studied medicine at Edinburgh University. After a fruitful stay in Paris, where he was introduced to the use of the stethoscope and deepened his understanding of the relationship between the observation of tissues and clinical symptoms, he obtained a place at Guy’s Hospital in the English capital. There he became the greatest expert in pathological anatomy of his time, after performing hundreds of necropsies.

In 1832, Hodgkin published an article describing six cases of an ailment that resulted in enlarged lymph nodes and spleen. But it took more than thirty years for his fellow British doctor Samuel Wilks to publish his study of forty-five cases, including five of those studied by Hodgkin, of a new tumour disease that he called “Hodgkin’s disease” in honour of its original discoverer. Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a cancer that causes the abnormal growth of lymph node cells. Today it is one of the best-known and treatable cancers, with an 86% survival rate five years after diagnosis.

Hodgkin lymphoma tissue, the darkest stained cells are normal lymphocytes and the largest and lightest are the cells that reproduce abnormally. Source: Wikimedia

Hygiene classes to workers

In addition to his intense scientific activity, Hodgkin was actively involved in the defence of human rights. Like many other Quakers, he was against slavery, so he founded the Aborigines Protection Society and spoke out harshly against the measures being taken against Native Americans. His idealism also led him to reject entry into the Royal College for Physicians in 1837, considering that institution elitist and sectarian. In contrast, he decided to get involved in the setting up of University College London and its medical school, which was liberal and open to everyone. This decision eventually resulted in his resignation from Guy’s Hospital —for which the new school was a competitor— diminished his scientific output and led him to abandon the daily practice of medicine. He spent a good part of his time sharing his medical knowledge in humanitarian missions throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. He was part of the medical aid to the survivors of the 1860 massacre during the ethnic revolts in Syria and Lebanon.

Tombstone of Thomas Hodgkin, Jaffa, Israel. Credit: Dr.Avishai Teicher

Throughout his life, Hodgkin dressed according to the Quaker canons, always in black with a white scarf around his neck. In 1866, a bout of dysentery cut short his life as he was travelling through the Palestinian city of Haifa, where he is buried in the English cemetery. Above his tomb, a red granite obelisk with the inscription “Humani nihil a se alienum putabat” reminds us that nothing human was foreign to him.

Bibiana García Visos


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