Did you know a graduate of Greensburg High School was the first to discover that cancer can be inherited? That’s right. The man was a 1884 graduate of the local high school. In 1913, after much research, an article he published in “Archives of Internal Medicine” made the case that cancer was inheritable in humans. Then he became even better known for other things.
Mike Porter found the information about the man in today’s column on Wikipedia. He took a photo of Aldred Scott Warthin’s headstone at South Park Cemetery where he was buried in 1931.
Warthin was born Oct. 21, 1866 in Greensburg. There is a building on the north side of the square that once had large lettering WARTHIN BLOCK on it. It was built in 1873. However, there was a Warthin in the general store business here in that location since 1846.
The first Warthin here was Edward, who was born in Virginia but came to Decatur County in 1825 and settled in Clay Township. He later moved to Greensburg and had his home and store in the location on the square as the building now, but that was when there were only log cabins. After Edward died, his sons – Edward Jr. and Richard – built the building we see today. Edward Jr. always told the story that he was born on the same location where the store was.
People have said that it was the first store that had large plate glass for show windows. Rumor had it that the windows of other stores at the time were “small and dingy.” The 1882 Atlas of Decatur County has a picture and description of the store. The building is much changed from the days when it had a railing on top with “Warthin Block 1873” painted within a circle.
Aldred S. Warthin’s parents were Edward Jr. Eliza. He was born here, graduated from Greensburg High School in 1884. He then went on to accomplish incredible things for all of mankind. He first earned a teacher’s diploma from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and the next year received a A.B. from Indiana University. Then he went to the University of Michigan Medical School, earned a M.A. in 1890 and a Ph.D in 1893. He did post-graduate study in Vienna and Freiburg and then joined the faculty at the University of Michigan where he remained for the rest of his career.
Aldred located several sets of identical twins that developed identical cancers and became convinced that both susceptibility and immunity to cancer could be inherited. He began his genetic studies before Mendel’s principles of genetics became widely known. Sure, it took decades before it was accepted that cancer could be inherited, but the idea was finally accepted by the medical community.
Warthin was also known for other medical subjects. He studied the pathology of syphilis for 20 years and became the world’s leading authority on the subject. In fact, he and his associate developed the Warthin-Starry stain that is still used to demonstrate the presence of syphilis spirochetes. Many believe his most important work was his study of the reticuloendothelial system. (I had to look up many words in his biography and wouldn’t even try to pronounce them.) In 1919, he co-wrote about the effects of the chemical weapon mustard gas.
He married Katherine Angell, who was also a physician, and they had four children. Aldred’s hobbies included golf, raising flowers, collecting artistic portrayals of death that he wrote about in “The Physician of the Dance of Death.”
He was and is known for research on Adenolymphoma of the Parotid gland, or papillary cystadenoma Lymphomatosum. It actually became better known as Warthin’s tumor. One of the pulmonary signs of pericarditis is named “Warthin’s sound.” The Warthin-Starry stain, a silver based stain for spirochetes, is named for him. In 1927 his students and colleagues honored him with a Festschrift named “Contributions to Medical Science.” “The Warthin-Finkeldey cell” and his papers are preserved in the Bentley Historical Library at the U. of Michigan.
We might wonder if he returned to Decatur County reasonably often to see his family. I think so. When he died in May 1931 he was buried in South Park Cemetery in Greensburg. Next time you’re on the square take a look at the building. It is where Art on the Square is now located.