Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Merit Not Race

William A. Hinton
(Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)

In all honesty, Canton does not have a rich history that includes stories about African-Americans. There are dark elements of stories that trace the ownership of slaves to Isaac Royal – for whom Royal Street is named at the foot of the Blue Hill. In fact, while there were blacks living in that part of Stoughton that is now Canton, many of them had married into the Ponkapoag Indian Tribe and their stories have mostly been lost to time.

Yet, Canton does celebrate the career and home of William Augustus “Gus” Hinton, the first African-American to hold the rank of professor at Harvard University in its 313-year history. Yet, what Gus Hinton is widely known for is the Hinton Test, one that became the most effective tests leading to the diagnosis of syphilis.

Born in 1883 in Chicago, Illinois, Hinton was the son of Augustus Hinton and Maria Clark, emancipated slaves from North Carolina. Little is known of Hinton’s parents. What we do know is after slavery, Augustus Hinton was freed following the Civil War and became a farmer and railroad porter. It is possible that the Hinton surname came from being a slave on one of the Hinton Plantations. The largest landowner in the early days of Wake County (then Johnston County), North Carolina was the Hinton family. One of their early grants was a 136-acre parcel located on the west bank of the Neuse River. This was followed shortly with multiple grants, which eventually led to their having some 22,000 acres, extending to Clayton. Hundreds of slaves all took the name Hinton as a result of being the property of the Hinton Family.

The historical records indicate that the Hinton family treated their slaves very well and had a small school building erected for their education. Yet, when you read the slave narratives conducted by the Federal Writer’s Project in 1938, education did not seem to be a part of the backstory.  Robert Hinton, an emancipated slave, when interviewed about education said, "De white folks, ole missus, teached us de catechism, but dey didn't want you to learn to read and write. I can read and write now; learned since de surrender.” As for Augustus and Maria Hinton they knew that for their son to be successful in America, he would need an education.

Shortly after William Hinton was born, the family moved to Kansas City, Kansas and they determined to give him the education they likely had not enjoyed. Hinton attended public schools and a private Catholic school and worked as a newsboy. Through perseverance, young Gus Hinton would propel himself into the upper echelons of medicine and earn a place in history and science.

Hinton’s career choice was medicine, sparked by a high school biology teacher. Graduating from high school as the youngest in its history at age 16, Hinton went on to attend the University of Kansas in 1900. Within two years he was forced to drop out, unable to pay the tuition. Taking a leave he was able to earn enough money to return, yet the program of studies changed such that instead he transferred to Harvard College in Cambridge on a scholarship. A recurring theme in Hinton’s education was the fact that he would be forced repeatedly to leave school to finance his education, returning each and every time to move forward. For three years after his graduation, Hinton worked teaching biology, chemistry and physics in colleges in Tennessee and Oklahoma. It was in Langston, Oklahoma that Hinton met fellow teacher, Ada Hawes, who was teaching Latin at the Agricultural and Mechanical College. In 1909, Ada and Gus married, and that same year, they moved to Boston and rented a small apartment at 52 Fenwood Road, Jamaica Plain.

Although several years had passed since Hinton had done his pre-medical studies, he was able to enter Harvard Medical School and skip the second year, thus graduating in three years. Remarkably, and also in character, Hinton won the Edward Wigglesworth Scholarship – recommended by the administrative board to a “needy and deserving student.” At the same time, Hinton refused to accept the Lewis and Harriet Hayden Scholarship for “colored” students. Hinton stated that he wanted to be rewarded on his merit, not compensated because of his race. Graduating with cum laude in 1912, Hinton initially desired to become a surgeon, yet hospitals in Boston denied blacks the opportunity to intern with patients.

After Hinton’s graduation, Dr. Richard C. Cabot, a close friend and eminent physician, remarked that “but for Hinton’s courage, determination, and perseverance, his contributions to humanity might have been lost.” A former student of Cabot’s, Hinton had worked in the Harvard Laboratories that would become the backdrop of his groundbreaking research. “He was determined to succeed without benefit of internship which is considered essential for every doctor,” observed Cabot.

By 1915, Hinton moved his family to a modest house at 154 Dedham Street in Canton. It is likely that fellow classmate, Henry Lyman told Hinton of the four-acre parcel just a few miles from his own home on Elm Street. Lyman was a research chemist at Harvard, and by many accounts a close personal friend of the Hinton’s. Lyman was married into the Cabot family and kept homes on Commonwealth Avenue as well. The connection between Hinton and Lyman certainly shows the respect that the medical community of scholars held for this remarkable man.

The house in Canton was sold as an accessory to the land. The owner had told the Hinton’s that “the house isn’t worth anything, what you are getting is the land.” Yet, it was that house that Hinton turned into a home. Dr. Hinton loved both gardening and furniture making. A friend of Hinton said that “the pool was always filled with lilies of all colors, there was a tennis court, a rose garden, and an orchard and grape vines on the hill with every kind of fruit tree that grows in this part of the country.” His barbecues were legendary, and he worked to cut paths into the woods, lining the borders with irises and ladyslippers. “He loved the unusual and the beautiful.”

In 1919, Hinton received an appointment as instructor in preventative medicine and Hygiene at Harvard Medical School, commencing a more than three-decade teaching association at Harvard. In 1931, he started a school that would train women to become laboratory technicians. At the same time, Hinton was overseeing the expansion of state laboratory facilities and expanded ten facilities to more than a hundred in order to meet state regulations for marital blood tests. From 1946 -1949, Hinton worked as a consultant at the Massachusetts Hospital School here in Canton.

What Hinton was best known for, however, was his groundbreaking medical research in the field of sexually transmitted diseases, in particular, syphilis. During the period between 1930 and 1943, the rate of syphilis climbed by over 150%, and the treatment was a long series of painful injections or oral doses of mercury, bismuth and arsenic. As early as the mid 1920’s, Hinton insisted that treatment “not be guided by the persistence of positive tests, but by the physician’s diagnosis, since many patients react positively long after the disease has become inactive.” Hinton had come to recognize the problem of false positive tests, and set out to develop a more definitive test for syphilis.
False positive tests resulted in painful treatment, dangerous prognoses and the stigma of a shameful venereal disease.  By 1927, Hinton published the finding of a test that would become the widely known Hinton Test. Ten years later; the Hinton Test was the most sensitive and accurate test for syphilis ever created. False positives were almost eliminated, and as a result Hinton’s test became the gold standard. More importantly, in 1935 Hinton wrote the seminal text Syphilis and Its Treatment, devoting extensive sections to patient care. He made it clear that such diseases were “a by-product of poverty and ignorance and poor living conditions.” Race was not a factor in the spread of venereal diseases.

In fact, Hinton worked his whole life to ensure that race was not a factor in his work. So much so that he generally felt that widespread knowledge of the fact that he was black would delay the acceptance of his test. Robert C. Hayden, a biographer that wrote extensively on Hinton explains that “he was very realistic, and felt if his work got out there and they found out that he was black, his science would be devalued. In fact, some southern states stopped using the Hinton Test when they learned of his race.”  Hinton turned down the NAACP's 1938 Spingarn Medal award because he wanted his work to stand on its own merit. "Race should never get mixed up in the struggle for human welfare," he would later comment.

On February 10, 1941, Hinton left his home in Canton and was involved in accident on icy roads on Morton Street in Mattapan. His car skidded and a second car driving 15 mph crashed into him and caused such injury that Hinton’s leg was amputated above the knee. The next 18 years were filled with pain and acute diabetes, yet Hinton worked tirelessly at Harvard. In 1949, one year before academic retirement, Hinton was made Clinical Professor of Bacteriology, the first black to be named to a professorial rank in Harvard’s history. 

Hinton died at his home here in Canton on August 8, 1959 and was celebrated at First Parish Church at Canton Corner. In his will he left $75,000 to be put into a special scholarship for Harvard graduate students. The fund, a memorial to his parents, “who although born into slavery and without formal education, nevertheless recognized and practiced not only the highest ideals of their personal conduct, but also the true democratic principle of equal opportunity for all, without regard to racial or religious origins or to political status.” Hinton named the fund the Dwight D. Eisenhower Scholarship Fund in honor of the president whom he had felt made great strides in providing equal opportunity employment during his administration.  President Eisenhower wrote, “I could not recall having been given a personal distinction that had touched me more deeply.”

In 2008, Governor Deval Patrick dedicated the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Laboratory Institute in honor of Dr. William A. Hinton.

Special thanks to members of the Hinton family and to Robert C. Hayden, Jr. historian, author, and educator.