Thursday, October 11, 2012

Answer: A vanished department in the university?

For a search problem like this, I usually try to eliminate as much as possible as quickly as possible.  So I began with a search for physicians who were ALSO Legion of Honor winners.  

(I was thinking “how of those could there be”?  And yes, I had implicitly scoped it to US physicians, I will be more explicit in the future!) 

A search for [legion of honor winners] reveals a link to the Wikipedia page listing the recipients.  

Once I started scanning that list, I realized that not all doctors on the list had either the “MD” tag or the “Dr” tag associated with their names.  Luckily, it’s a short list.  I found there were only three docs to consider:  Ralph Bourgeois, Alexander Rice and Thomas Benton Cooley

At this point, I just start working through the possibilities.  

The first doctor was pretty easy to eliminate. 

Dr. Bouregeois served in the WW2  working at the front lines (a novel idea at the time), serving with distinction at Normandy.  After the war, he returned to Lafayette, LA and became a family doctor for the rest of his life. 

Similarly, Alexander Rice is another amazing fellow (founder Institute of Geographical Exploration at Harvard, professor at Harvard, best known for his adventures and exploration in the Amazon) where he was a pioneer in aerial surveys.  A fascinating guy, but not really a medical doctor after his service, he really seems more like Indiana Jones than anything else.  (Really, go check him out!) 

That leaves Thomas Benton Cooley, and it’s pretty easy to find the Wikipedia page on him.  

Following up on those links shows that although listed as a pediatrician in the roll of the Legion of Honor, he actually was also a hematologist, and well-known as a professor in the Department of Hygiene at the University of Michigan.  He was especially interested in the anaemias of childhood.  

I did a quick search on [ Cooley disease ] and found a page about Cooley anemia,  a disease he characterized first, and his name got stuck on it.

It all makes sense: he was interested in anemias, which led to him finding a new, usually fatal kind of anemia, which resulted in the term Cooley anemia, a term he apparently heartily disliked. 
(To amplify a bit:  Cooley’s anemia results from inheriting of a recessive trait that interferes with the rate of hemoglobin synthesis.  The affected infants are normal at first but, by the age of 6 to 9 months, they develop a kind of pallor, retarded growth, fever, inadequate food intake, numbness and tingling of the extremities. This is usually fatal before puberty. Countries like Italy, Greece and Cyprus have the highest frequency of this disease in the world, with around 10 percent of the Mediterranean population carrying this gene.  Cooley first noted this disease in the children of Mediterranean heritage in the clinics of Ann Arbor, Michigan.) 
So… the mystery doctor is: 

Thomas Benton Cooley, Professor of Hygiene and Medicine at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.
(Image linked from Wikimedia)

And the vanished department is:  Department of Hygiene

Reader Christopher Eagle points out a great resource on thehistory of the “Department of Hygiene” at the University of Michigan.  This page shows that “hygiene” as a department was founded in 1887, which morphed into the Division of Hygiene in 1927, then morphing again into the Department of Public Health in 1941. 

Academics really DO change over time.  And while “hygiene” as a department has been absorbed into the more general area of public health, the University of Michigan has an *industrial hygiene* program in place to this day. (which is highly regarded).  But the modern focus in IH is workplace hazards management (e.g., reducing or eliminating toxic chemicals or any agent, physical, biological or radiological, in the workplace).   You can even get a PhD in the area. 

But in Cooley’s day, “hygiene” specifically meant improving sanitation.  His work was seminal in improving the lives of children by educating mothers in keeping living conditions clean and protecting the milk supply from adulterations and infection.  This sounds obvious now, but it was a marvel of science in Cooley’s day. 

Sometimes those meek, mild, professors really do change the world.  

Search on! 


  1. didn't see any mention of the building image used - would you source the image and give the building name and location and its relation to the question, please - haven't had any success trying to locate it. Were you actually on the U of Michigan or Wayne State campuses or is that just artifice for the quiz?
    Enjoy Boulder.
    Muenzinger Psychology building

  2. Though incidentally, Alexander Rice chaired a defunct department as well! Geographical Exploration at Harvard. His is also an interesting backstory.,_Jr.

  3. I am confused. Why would you start a search for a vanished department by looking for Doctor's who have the Legion of Honor? Is there a part of the question that is missing?

    1. I guess I should have been clearer. The reason you start with that is because it's the fastest way to get to a small search space. If you think about it, how many American MDs would have the Legion of Honor. As you saw in my example, it's only a few. Once you have that small number, then you can test for the "vanished department" and the "diseases named for the doctor."

      Make sense?

    2. No. How did you get to legion of honor in the first place?

    3. Still doesn't make sense! Can you share the original question in its entirety?

    4. Sure... you can get to it by going back 1 day from this post. (See the "Older Post" blue link on the bottom right of this page.) Or, you can visit the page at

    5. Ah! I see, the full "instructions" to the question are as follows:

      "He was a physician who served valiantly in a World War, won the Legion of Honor for his noble work in France, and was the first to describe a disease that is now named after him...What really got to me is that he worked in a university department that no longer exists as an academic discipline."

      Thanks, and sorry for not having figured that out on my own! I suspect I'm not the only one who found their way over here for the first time via a Gawker piece, which essentially only referred to information in your present post and didn't explain what (or where) the original question was. I imagine this might be a bad habit all-too-familiar to an observer of search behavior...

  4. I ended up going for:
    Dr. Schepens (Not on the mentioned list)
    But I couldn't tag him with a lost department.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Where is Cooleey's building located?