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Oswald T. Avery Collection 1912-2005
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Biographical Note

Oswald Theodore Avery was born on October 21, 1877, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the child of British emigrants. When his father, a Baptist minister, was invited to become the pastor of a New York City church in 1887, the family moved to the Lower East Side. Avery attended both Colgate Academy and Colgate University, where, as a talented cornetist, he became leader of the college band. He received his A.B. in 1900. Upon graduating from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1904, Avery entered general practice. In 1907, however, frustrated by medicine's inability to help some patients, he moved to laboratory work at the Hoagland Laboratory (Brooklyn), the first privately endowed bacteriological research institute in the country. Here Avery established what René J. Dubos has called the pattern of his career - the "systematic effort to understand the biological activities of pathogenic bacteria through a knowledge of their chemical composition."

Avery came to the attention of Rufus Cole, the director of the Hospital of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, through his paper on secondary infections in pulmonary tuberculosis. Founded in 1910, the Hospital aimed to further medical research by enabling researchers to pursue laboratory and clinical investigations of the diseases treated in the hospital's wards. One of Cole's goals was to develop a therapeutic serum--like that which had been developed for diphtheria--for pneumonia, and to this end he asked Avery to join the Hospital's pneumonia research program. Avery moved to the Rockefeller Institute in 1913, where he focused most of his research for the next 35 years on a single species of pneumococcus, Diplococcus pneumoniae.

During World War I, Avery applied for the U.S. Army Medical Corps, but was rejected because he was still a Canadian citizen. He was accepted as a private, which qualified him for naturalization, and eventually commissioned a captain. Avery's wartime duties included instructing Army medical officers in the diagnosis and treatment of pneumonia. The work of his lab also extended during this period to research on respiratory diseases of interest to the military, such as influenza and secondary pneumonic infections.

After becoming a member emeritus at the Rockefeller Institute in 1943, Avery continued his research there until 1948. He then moved to Nashville to be closer to his brother, Roy Avery, a bacteriologist at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine. He died in Nashville on 20 February 1955 at the age of 77.

Avery achieved many honors during his career. He served as president of the American Association of Immunologists, the American Association of Pathologists and Bacteriologists, and the Society of American Bacteriologists. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a member of a number of foreign learned societies, including the Royal Society of London. He received honorary degrees from McGill University, New York University, the University of Chicago, and Rutgers University, as well as awards from organizations such as the American Public Health Association, the Royal Society of London, the American College of Physicians, the Association of American Physicians, and the New York Academy of Medicine.

Brief Chronology

1887Father moves family to New York City
1900Receives A.B. from Colgate University
1904Receives M.D. from the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University practices medicine (general surgery) in New York City
1907-13Associate Director, Hoagland Laboratory, Brooklyn (works with Benjamin White)
1913-48Career at Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research [RIMR]
1913Becomes Assistant, Department of Hospital (October)
1915Becomes Associate, Department of Hospital (July 1st)
1917Works with Alphonse R. Dochez; serves in the US Army Medical Corps
1918Becomes a US citizen
1919Becomes an Associate Member at RIMR (July 1st)
1923Becomes a "Member" at RIMR (July 1st); works with Michael Heidelberger
1943Becomes Emeritus Member (July 1st); remains at RIMR until 1948
1944Publishes results of research with MacLeod and McCarty on the transforming principle
1945Receives the Copley Medal from the Royal Society of London
1947Receives the Lasker Award from the American Public Health Association
1948Retires to Nashville
1955Dies in Nashville (February 20th)
1965Avery Memorial Gateway dedicated at Rockefeller University
1976René J. Dubos's The Professor, The Institute, and DNA
1985Maclyn McCarty's The Transforming Principle: Discovering that Genes Are Made of DNA

Selected Awards

1921Sc.D., Colgate University
1929American Association of Immunologists, President
1932John Phillips Memorial Award, American College of Physicians, Paul Ehrlich Gold Medal
1934American Association of Pathologists and Bacteriologists, President
1935LL.D., McGill University; National Academy of Sciences, Member
1942Society of American Bacteriologists, President
1944Royal Society of London, Foreign Member; Gold Medal, New York Academy of Medicine
1945Copley Medal, Royal Society of London; Kober Foundation Medal, Association of American Physicians
1946Charles Mickle Fellowship, University of Toronto
1947Sc.D., New York University; Lasker Award, American Public Health Association
1949Passano Foundation Award
1950Sc.D., University of Chicago; Pasteur Gold Medal, Swedish Medical Society, Stockholm
1953Sc.D., Rutgers University