Philip Showalter Hench was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on February 28, 1896, the son of Jacob Bixler Hench and Clara Showalter. After attending local schools he entered Lafayette College, Easton, Penn., where he graduated Bachelor of Arts in 1916. He enlisted in the Medical Corps of the United States Army in 1917 but was transferred to the reserve corps to finish his medical training. In 1920 he received his doctorate in medicine from the University of Pittsburgh. After a year as an interne at Saint Francis Hospital, Pittsburgh, he became a Fellow of the Mayo Foundation, the graduate school of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Medicine. His association with the Mayo Clinic began in 1923 when he became first an assistant, then, three years later, Head of its Department of Rheumatic Diseases. Between 1928 and 1929, Dr. Hench studied abroad, at Freiburg University and at the von Müller Clinic, Munich. He was appointed an instructor in the Mayo Foundation in 1928, Assistant Professor 1932, Associate Professor 1935 and, in 1947, Professor of Medicine, a position which he still holds.
In 1942 Dr. Hench entered military service as a lieutenant-colonel in the Medical Corps, becoming Chief of the Medical Service and Director of the Army’s Rheumatism Centre at the Army and Navy General Hospital. Leaving the army with the rank of colonel, in 1946, he became expert consultant to the Army Surgeon General, which position is still held by him.
At the Mayo Clinic he specialized in arthritic disease. In the course of his work he observed the favourable effects of jaundice on arthritic patients, causing a remission of pain. Other bodily changes, for example pregnancy, produced the same effect. These and other observations led him gradually to the conclusion that the pain-alleviating substance was a steroid.
In the period 1930-1938, Dr. E. C. Kendall had isolated several steroids from the adrenal gland cortex. After several years of collaboration with Dr. Kendall, it was decided to try the effect of one of these substances, Compound E (later named cortisone), on arthritic patients. Delay in implementing this decision was caused by Dr. Hench’s military service in World War II and by the costly and complicated isolation of the substance. In 1948-1949, cortisone was successfully tested on arthritic patients. Hench also treated patients with ACTH, a hormone produced by the pituitary gland which stimulates the adrenal gland.
Dr. Hench is the author of several papers in the field of rheumatology, contributed mainly to Hygeia and the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases. His many awards include the Heberden Medal (London), the 1949 Lasker Award, presented by the American Public Health Association, the Passano Foundation Award and the Criss Award (1951). He has received honorary doctorates in science from Lafayette College, Washington and Jefferson College, Western Reserve University, the National University of Ireland and the University of Pittsburgh. He holds the degree of master of science from the University of Minnesota.
A Fellow of the American Medical Association and of the American College of Physicians, he is one of the leaders in American rheumatology. He is a founder member of the American Rheumatism Association (President 1940-1941), and holds office in many rheumatism organizations. He holds honorary membership of the Royal Society of Medicine (London) and of rheumatism societies in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Denmark and Spain.
In 1927, Dr. Hench married Mary Genevieve Kahler, daughter of John Henry Kahler. They have two sons and two daughters. He is interested in music, photography and tennis, and is an authority on medical history.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.
Philip S. Hench died on March 30, 1965.