Dr. Lewis — Pathologist gave life working to save lives

June 30, 2011

By Anna Passante

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Dr. Paul A. Lewis. ~image courtesy Paul A. Lewis II

To most people, Lewis Playfield on E. Pryor Avenue is just a small park popular for baseball and football. But its name honors a courageous early 20th-century medical researcher.

The playfield was named for Bay View native Dr. Paul A. Lewis, who died of yellow fever on June 30, 1929, while studying the disease in Bahia, Brazil. Originally known as Pryor Avenue Playground, the Milwaukee Common Council renamed the playground in June 1932 “in honor of the public services of Dr. Paul A. Lewis, who gave his life in the interest of medical research…”

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(THEN, left) Dr. Paul A. Lewis’ childhood home at 2519-21 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. ~photo courtesy Carlen Hatala, city of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission
(NOW, right) After Clinton Lewis’ death in 1930, Paul’s sister Marian, also a physician, took over her father’s practice and did an extreme makeover of the family medical office and home on Kinnickinnic Avenue. ~photo Anna Passante

Born in 1879, Lewis was the eldest son of Dr. Clinton H. Lewis, who practiced medicine at 2519-21 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. The building was also the family residence where Clinton and wife Caroline raised five children.

Paul Lewis attended the Milwaukee Public Schools, most likely Dover Street School and South Division High School. (Bay View High didn’t open until 1914.) He attended the University of Wisconsin, the College of Physicians & Surgeons in Milwaukee, and earned his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1904. In 1906 he married Louise Durbin, then had two children, Hobart D. and Janet.

Paul Lewis’ passion was the medical laboratory, and he intended to spend his life as a bacteriologist. In 1906 he held a teaching fellowship at Harvard Medical School and in 1908 joined the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. In 1910 he left Rockefeller to become the director of the Henry Phipps Institute at the University of Pennsylvania-Philadelphia and also taught experimental pathology at the university. Lewis never practiced medicine as a physician either in Milwaukee or out East.

In 1916, while he was at Phipps, a polio epidemic broke out in New York City with over 9,000 cases and 2,343 deaths. Nationwide, there were 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths. Lewis worked with Dr. Simon Flexner to find a vaccine for polio. Together they proved that a virus caused polio and developed a vaccine that protected monkeys from polio 100-percent of the time. But it wasn’t until 1954 that Dr. Jonas Salk successfully developed a vaccine that prevented polio in humans.

Lewis was highly regarded in the research field, especially by Flexner who was quoted as saying, “Lewis was the smartest man I ever knew.” And the world of 1917 needed smart researchers, for during that year a worldwide influenza, of pandemic proportions, broke out. Also known as the Spanish Flu, this disease killed an estimated 20 to 100 million people over three years. A number of researchers, including Lewis, worked feverishly to develop a vaccine, and, by 1920, a number of different vaccines were administered, including Lewis’. The death toll dropped, but it is unclear if the drop was the result of these vaccines or the fact that the virus had weakened dramatically by that time.

Dr. Lewis researched polio, influenza, tuberculosis, and yellow fever, the last of which claimed his life in 1929. A telegram reporting his death read: “Typical yellow fever. Probably laboratory infection.”

Lewis was a quiet man, not very sociable, unlike his wife who loved societal gatherings. Lewis wanted to be in the laboratory, not fundraising for research projects. Grandson Paul A. Lewis II, son of Hobart, was told very little about his grandfather. However, Hobart did tell his son this story: “Someone came to visit my parents,” related Hobart. “Upon leaving, the person said to my mother, ‘I have met some quiet people in my day, but your husband isn’t quiet, he is silent.’”

In 1923 Lewis returned to the Rockefeller Institute to work on a cure for tuberculosis, but he produced little of significance in the lab and was in danger of losing his position. In an attempt to redeem himself, Lewis volunteered to continue the yellow fever research of Dr. Hideyo Noguchi, who at the age of 28 died of the disease in May 1928 in Ghana, Africa.

Instead of Ghana, Lewis continued Noguchi’s yellow fever research in Bahia, Brazil. Unfortunately, Lewis contracted yellow fever and died on June 30, 1929. A telegram reporting the death read: “Typical yellow fever. Probably laboratory infection.” Lewis’ wife Louise requested that the body be shipped to Milwaukee. Seventeen family members attended Lewis’ burial at Forest Hills Cemetery in Madison, Wis.

It is unknown how Lewis contracted yellow fever, since he reported no research details, and his lab notes provided no information about his laboratory procedures.

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~photo courtesy Carlen Hatala, city of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission

The Rockefeller Institute paid the Princeton University tuition for Lewis’ son, Hobart, who was 20 at the time of his father’s death. According to Paul A. Lewis II, after her husband’s death, Louise resided in Merion, Pa., and never remarried.

Hobart went on to make a name for himself in the literary world. In 1960 he traveled with Richard Nixon during his presidential campaign as a journalist for Reader’s Digest. Hobart went on to serve as the chief editor for the magazine from 1964 to 1976. He recently died on April 1, 2011, at the age of 101.


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