By Nathalie Wheaton
Librarian, assistant archivist
A hundred years ago, a momentous discovery occurred on the Rush campus: James B. Herrick, MD, identified sickle cell anemia. Herrick was a 1888 graduate of Rush Medical College and became a faculty member at his alma mater. Herrick also served on the Presbyterian Hospital staff as a specialist in cardiovascular diseases for most of his career.
In 1908, a patient from Grenada entered Presbyterian Hospital with several medical complaints including weakness, fatigue and ulcers on his legs. “Routine” blood work was a relatively new concept, and this patient’s sample was like nothing Herrick’s intern, Ernest E. Irons, MD, had ever seen. The blood cells had a crescent-like shape.
Herrick and Irons treated this patient for over two years, and Herrick published “Peculiar Elongated and Sickle-Shaped Red Blood Corpuscles in a Case of Severe Anemia” in 1910. Although sickle cell anemia is common among Africans and prevalent among Americans of African descent, this was the first time this disorder was described in Western medical literature.
Herrick was a presence at Rush for over 50 years and embodied the Rush ideals of patient care, medical education and scientific research. He attended Rush Medical College as a student when the curriculum consisted of two short years of study. Students learned through lectures and observation of clinics in amphitheaters.
As a faculty member, Herrick advocated educating Rush’s students in the wards themselves, where they could get first-hand experience diagnosing and treating patients alongside their mentors. He also was a witness of and participant in the shift of medicine from observation to scientific research, using new theories and technologies as they became available.
The Rush University Medical Center Archives is proud to house the James Bryan Herrick Papers. His collection contains almost 100 of his articles, mostly on cardiology but also medical education. Herrick also wrote articles on non-medical topics such as literature and history.