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P&S Journal

P&S Journal: Winter 1997, Vol.17, No.1
Faculty Remembered: Philip E. Smith, 1884-1970

By Nicholas P. Christy'51

This series, Faculty Remembered, features profiles of former faculty members at P&S. The author of the series is a 1951 P&S graduate and former professor of medicine. He is now special lecturer in medicine and writer-in-residence at P&S.

T o medical students attending P&S in the 1940s, the faculty seemed very distant. We viewed professors as parental figures: austere, remote, endowed with unquestioned authority. None of our teachers better exemplified that generational gap than Philip Smith, director of the course in histology. Tall, aloof, silent, he had a lighter side that, to us, was inaccessible.

Camera-Shy?
This photo from the 1947 P&S yearbook is the only image
found of Dr. Philip Smith, who taught at Columbia for 26 years.

Son of a Congregationalist minister, P.E. Smith was born in DeSmet, S.D., but the family soon moved to an Indian mission in Nebraska, then to California, where the children did their share on an 80-acre farm. In 1908 Smith graduated from nearby Pomona College, then enrolled in anatomy at Cornell University's graduate school in Ithaca, earning an M.S. and, in 1912, a Ph.D. in the developmental anatomy of the amphibian CNS. Recruited back West as anatomy instructor at the University of California at Berkeley (1912), he met Irene Patchett, a master's candidate in amphibian pituitary studies, and married her in 1913. During the Berkeley years, 1912-26, the mild Smith encountered another young student of the pituitary, Herbert Evans, later famed for his work on the growth-promoting actions of pituitary extracts. Overlapping academic territory made the two bitter, lifelong enemies. In 1916, often collaborating with his wife, Smith set out to study the embryonic frog pituitary. Scientists in this era were on their own, so Dr. and Mrs. Smith made field trips collecting eggs, tadpoles, and frogs. Smith painstakingly made the microinstruments needed to operate on the pituitary anlage (bud) of the 4-mm tadpole. Hypophysectomy prevented metamorphosis and caused thyroid atrophy, defects remedied by implants or extracts of anterior lobe.

A 1919 sabbatical at Harvard with W.B. Cannon changed Smith's focus to the mammalian pituitary: He injected chromic acid into the rat hypothalamic-hypophyseal region, but this induced "impure" hypopituitarism. At Berkeley (1920-25), then at Stanford, where he moved in 1926, and during a European sabbatical (1926-27), he worked to perfect a parapharyngeal operative approach, removing the rat pituitary by suction with a minute pipette he fashioned himself. This procedure allowed total hypophysectomy without CNS damage and enabled Smith to study "pure" hypopituitarism and hormone replacement therapy and to publish a paper immediately recognized as classic (American Journal of Anatomy, 45:205, 1930).

In 1927 Columbia appointed Smith professor of anatomy. He was offered the chairmanship but refused it, regarding himself as "not chairman material." Nevertheless, he acted as the principal support of Samuel Detwiler, the more light-hearted and outgoing chairman. Smith was tacitly viewed as the actual leader of the department, flinty and severe. Directing histology from 1927 to 1952, Dr. Smith was so diffident a lecturer, speaking in a whisper, that he failed to impress his intellectual force on medical students, reaching them more effectively as editor of "Bailey's Textbook of Histology" (1932-58) through his terse, vivid prose style. He is chiefly remembered as mentor of superior graduate students, and many established endocrinologists came to work in his lab. His work earned him many honors: France's Legion d'Honneur (1938); CPMC's Distinguished Service Medal (1953); honorary degrees from Princeton (1948) and Columbia (1954); and the British Society for Endocrinology's Sir Henry Dale Medal (1963).

Despite his lack of charisma Dr. Smith provided an effective course in histology. He and his graduate students, who revered him, took Saturday afternoons off to attend Columbia football games. (Unknown to all, Smith played football at Pomona: Tall and thin, he was known as "Slats Smith.") He studied the stars with a telescope he made himself, and he built, maintained, and sailed a boat. Not always serious, he enthusiastically joined in the anatomy department's Prohibition-era bootleg moonshine parties at Bard Hall.

Dr. Smith took a long time retiring. He taught an extra year at P&S, then moved to rural Massachusetts, but the lure of research drew him back to anatomy at Stanford where he worked for seven years, publishing the last of his 80 papers in 1963 at age 79. Withdrawing at last to Massachusetts farm country, he died at home in his sleep Dec. 8, 1970.

More influential outside P&S than within, Smith taught at Columbia for 26 years; his published scientific papers span a half century, 1914 to 1963. It is ironic that the two irreconcilable rivals, Philip Smith and Herbert Evans, are recognized to this day as the most important contributors of their era to our knowledge of the physiology of the mammalian anterior pituitary gland.


The author again expresses appreciation for materials supplied by Martin Collins in the P&S library. P&S now has more archival material on Dr. Smith than was available in 1971 when the author set about to write Dr. Smith's memorial for a journal of the Endocrine Society. Then, the entire archive consisted of a 3x5 file card containing little more than Dr. Smith's Social Security number. The Department of Anatomy now has no records; it seems its historical documents were systematically discarded. Dr. Roy O. Greep, professor emeritus of anatomy at Harvard, gave helpful information. The obituary in Anatomical Record (1971) by Dr. Frederic J. Agate Jr., late associate professor of anatomy at P&S, was a useful source of personal and scientific data about Dr. Smith. Special thanks to Dr. Samuel L. Leonard, professor emeritus in biological sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, who provided not only documents, but also invaluable recollections of Dr. Smith, with whom Dr. Leonard spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow (1931-33).


copyright ©, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center

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