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Henry James Nichols, M.D.*

Lieutenant Colonel, Medical Corps, U. S. Army

(21 May 1877-3 September 1927)

Medical Scientist

When Lieutenant Colonel Henry James Nichols passed away in Ancon Hospital in the Canal Zone on September 3, 1927, the Army medical service lost one of the finest characters and one of the best minds that have served the Corps. His loss was the more acutely felt at the time because of the circumstance that he mistook an acutely diseased appendix for a recurrence of the chronic dysentery from which he suffered periodically. His death closed one of the most useful careers in the medical service.

Colonel Nichols was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on May 21, 1877, the son of Gideon Parsons and Delia (Briggs) Nichols. He attended Yale University where he received the degrees of A.B. (1899) and M.A. (1901), after which he entered the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania where he was graduated in 1904. Given a temporary commission in 1905 he was sent to the Army Medical School in Washington where he was graduated in 1906, following which he was commissioned a first lieutenant in the Medical Corps on July 7. In recognition of his aptitude for research, he was sent to the Philippine Islands and assigned to the United States Army Board for the Study of Tropical Diseases. He served on this board with Captain James M. Phalen from 1907 to 1910. The most fruitful of their studies related to beriberi, bringing about changes in the Philippine Scout ration that eventually resulted in the elimination of the disease among these troops. Returned from the Philippines, Nichols was assigned to the Army Medical School as associate professor of pathology and bacteriology. In 1914 he was transferred to laboratory service in the Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco. In August 1917 he sailed for duty in France with a laboratory unit which he had been designated to assemble, but was returned sick to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington in December. From that time until February 1919 he served at this hospital and in the Office of The Surgeon General. He was then sent again to the Army Medical School where he was assigned to the position of Director of Laboratories. In 1923 he was made head of the Department of Preventive Medicine and Hygiene, which post he held until his transfer to foreign service in the Panama Canal Zone in 1926. He served as medical inspector at the headquarters of the Panama Canal Department until his death.

Colonel Nichols spent the twenty years of his army career in practically unbroken service in laboratories and sanitary work. He was pre-eminently an investigator with a mental equipment for that work possessed but by the few. With natural high intelligence he combined a fine education, sound reasoning, and an impartial judgment. With these mental advantages he was a flawless laboratory technician. He recorded the results of his studies with painstaking accuracy so that they have stood well the tests of time and experience. He was, with Dr. John A. Fordyce of New York, the first in this country to demonstrate the value of arsphenamine in the treatment of syphilis. His experimental work on syphilis in rabbits was pioneer work in this field, with far-reaching results in knowledge of the disease. He was associated with General Frederick F. Russell in developing and perfecting antityphoid vaccination. Perhaps his most important contributions to medical knowledge were those upon "typhoid carriers." His studies upon the "carrier state" in laboratory animals threw light upon a hitherto obscure subject and brought about the use of surgical treatment upon human "carriers." In 1922 he published a work Carriers in Infectious Diseases which is recognized as  authoritative, his classification of carriers winning almost universal adoption. His contributions to medical journal literature number nearly one hundred upon such subjects as syphilis, yaws, pneumococcus and streptococcus infections, and upon the preparation and use of vaccines.

He was a charter member of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and presided over the society’s meeting in New Orleans in 1920. He founded the American Journal of Tropical Medicine in 1921, was its editor until he went to Panama in 1926, and associate editor until his death. He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene of England, the Society of American Bacteriologists, and the Association of Military Surgeons. He was a fellow of the American College of Surgeons and of the American Public Health Service and was a member of the Medical Division of the National Research Council.

While of a retiring nature with a certain reticence of speech, Colonel Nichols had a positive gift for deep and lasting friendships. He was held in affectionate admiration by practically all of his close associates. Entirely unselfish, he was ever ready with a helping hand to others engaged in research work. His motives were based on a great wish to be of definite service to mankind. His outlook upon life is well expressed in the words of his dedication of Carriers in Infectious Diseases which reads "To the Spirit of Science and the Instinct of Service."

He was married on September 21, 1910, to Grace Gundry, daughter of Dr. Richard Gundry, an eminent psychiatrist of Catonsville, Maryland. She survived her husband, with a son and a daughter. The funeral of Colonel Nichols was held at Arlington Cemetery on September 29, 1927. A bronze plaque has been set up in his memory on the wall of the foyer of the Army Medical School.

Colonel, U. S. Army, Retired

*Source: "Obituaries," The Army Medical Bulletin, No. 63 (July 1942), 175-77.