Lives of the fellows

Edward Harold Kass

b.20 December 1917 d.17 January 1990
AM Kentucky USA(1939) MS(1941) PhD(1943) MD(1947) Hon MA Harvard(1958) Hon DSc Kentucky(1962) *FRCP(1982)

‘Ed’ Kass was a man of many and large talents who contributed greatly to clinical science and the practice of infectious disease medicine, not only in his own country out throughout the world, and his grizzled beard and lively, incisive comments became widely known.

His parents emigrated from Russia to New York City, where he was born and subsequently grew up - living on the Lower East Side. His father, Hyman Kass, spoke little English, frequently changed jobs and was often in financial difficulties. It was not an easy time for Ed, he was moved from school to school although he was clearly an able scholar, and he missed several grades. He left grade school at 11 years old and high school at 15. Largely by his own efforts - selling Fuller brushes from door to door and washing-up in restaurants - he supported himself while at City College, New York, and later at the University of Kentucky.

After graduating in 1939 he moved on to the University of Wisconsin where he worked towards a PhD in bacteriology and then completed his medical training at the University of California, where he received the ‘gold-headed cane’ award as an outstanding clinical student in the class of 1947. He moved to Boston, Massachusetts for his intern years and remained there for the rest of his life. He was granted a fellowship in virus infections and then rose through the ranks of Harvard Medical School from instructor in 1951 to William Ellery Channing professor of medicine in 1973, and director of the Channing Laboratory m 1977. He remained active in medicine in Boston to the end of the 1980s, even though latterly he was greatly weakened by disease.

Kass was a man of remarkable personal qualities. He was physically of middle height and light build. His movements were controlled and quick, he spoke rapidly and emphatically. He would disagree with a smile, and never seemed heavy or ponderous. Yet he had an amazingly wide ranging and retentive mind and could recall, apparently instantly, details of cases, research results, and colleagues’ names and interests. One was frequently reminded that he had been trained as a laboratory scientist and he would enthuse over the power of a new technology or experimental approach, and quickly demolish the claims of researchers whose work had not been rigorously designed and executed.

His own research contributions were particularly in the field of urinary tract infections. He established the idea of quantitative urine culture, and when he was led on to consider the relation between chronic infection and hypertension he exploited the epidemiological approach and was thus involved with British epidemiologists working in Jamaica and South Wales.

Ed Kass played an important role in the upsurge of infectious disease medicine in the USA. He was trained under Maxwell Finland, who was running one of the very few departments of medicine with a focus of interest in infection. Ed was one of the small group of enthusiasts who founded the American Society of Infectious Diseases and he also became its president. He wanted the Society to encourage and emphasize the importance of good research and supported their taking over the ailing Journal of Infectious Diseases. He edited it personally from 1967-77, during which time it became a highly regarded world-class publication, and he then became founder-editor of Review of Infectious Diseases, which was in its own way just as outstanding, and a gold mine of information for clinicians and research workers.

Just before his death he laid the foundations for a large multivolume to be called Handbook of Infectious Diseases, which is being co-edited by Tom Weller, Shelley Wolff and the writer. This will be another memorial to his enthusiasm, professional excellence and indefatigable industry. He had contacts and personal friends throughout the world and was the driving force behind the formation of the International Society of Infectious Diseases.

Kass was also a lover of medical history, and of Britain, and these came together in his project to write a history of Thomas Hodgkin. He was given access to the family papers by Hodgkin’s descendants, and he immersed himself in the details of the life of Quakers in the 18th century, as well as in Hodgkin’s unusual relationships with other physicians and various philanthropic bodies. He also carefully evaluated Hodgkin’s scientific and clinical work. This took years of study, including a sabbatical spell in Oxford, and after his first wife, Fae Golden, died in 1973 and he married an historian, Amalie Moses Hecht, it became a joint enterprize which resulted not only in several learned papers but, finally, in a major and remarkably readable book Perfecting the World: the life and times of Dr Thomas Hodgkin 1798-1866, Boston, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. Their joint contribution was acknowledged when he was invited to take a leading role in the ceremony of unveiling a ‘blue plaque’ on Hodgkin’s house in Bedford Square, and also when the Amalie M and Edward H Kass lectureship in Medical History was established at Guy’s Hospital. He had married Fae Golden in 1943, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. With his marriage to Amalie Hecht in 1975 he acquired four stepsons and a stepdaughter. They formed a warm and lively family; the activities of the children gave him much pleasure and he had a deep affection for his wife who appreciated and supported him in many different ways.

Ed Kass played a full role in the committee work of the medical school and was a consultant to many Boston hospitals. His curriculum vitae lists service on 29 state, national and international committees -including chairmanship of the committee in space medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and membership of the Assembly of Life Sciences of the National Research Council. He was invited to lecture to medical schools by 35 different countries, and his advice was valued by eight editorial boards of which he was a member. He received numerous honours and he particularly valued the Rosenthal Foundation Award of the American College of Physicians, the Public Service Award of NASA, and an Antibiotic Pioneer of the Year award. He was honoured by foreign medical groups, for example he received an honorary degree from the University of Gothenberg, a Von Humboldt fellowship, and membership of many infectious disease societies such as that of Japan.

Kass was the author or co-author of seven books and about 400 scientific papers. In the 1950s these dealt with early tetracyclines -‘aureomycin and ‘terramycin’ - and the use of ACTH and steroids in infections in laboratory animals and patients. He also did work on cell sickling and sickle cell disease. He then passed, by way of studies of antibiotics in urinary infections, to his first paper in 1957 on pyelonephritis and bacterial counts, and later to a paper in 1958 on asymptomatic bacteriuria. He made laboratory and clinical studies of renal tract infections and in 1962 he published his first paper, with W E Miall, on epidemiological studies of hypertension in Jamaica. This was followed later by studies of bacteriuria in pregnancy and longitundial studies on the natural history of bacteriuria and of hypertension in children. He also published experimental studies on such topics as the role of alveolar macrophages in lung infections, the effects of endotoxins and the value, or otherwise, of fever. He analysed the effects of antibodies on mycoplasmas and of mycoplasmas on the genital tract of women, and he wrote of the value of β carotine and photosensitivity. He also worked on the causation of the ‘toxic shock’ syndrome. Many publications are the result of requests for reviews and appraisals of fields in which he was interested.

He was, of course, no plaster saint and he did show the defects of his virtues. Because he could hold everything in his head he was reluctant at times to agree to systems for others to work to. Because he was busy with so many projects, colleagues were sometimes exasperated that he was not available for them when he wanted them.

Ed Kass proved that in American society a young man with no advantages beyond his own wit and industry could rise to eminence in medicine with a personality unscathed by the struggle and enriched by an enthusiasm for life and for his subject, and by a warm and generous spirit. He continued the earlier work of Max Finland, proving that the science and clinical discipline of infectious diseases could be developed as a branch of medicine of high academic excellence - a concept which excited and encouraged numerous young people in Boston and elsewhere. Such people, and the organizations and publications he generated, are his memorial to his profession and must be preserved and developed.

I have two memories of Ed Kass which I preserve: one is of a jolly breakfast meeting in the USA when he appeared as an engaging companion rather than an eminent scholar as he expounded the virtues of ‘blintzes for breakfast’ - a Jewish delicacy of winch I knew nothing. The other is of a gathering round his couch in Lincoln, Massachusetts, when he had but a few days to live, spending hours discussing the progress of the proposed ‘Handbooks’ - suggesting new authors and topics. He made numerous wise comments, exchanged pleasantries, and never complained of his extreme discomfort.

D A J Tyrrell

* Elected under the special bye-law which provides for the election to the fellowship of "Persons holding a medical qualification, but not Members of the College, who have distinguished themselves in the practice of medicine, or in the pursuit of Medical or General Science or Literature.."

[The Lancet, 1990,335,345; The Independent, 23 Jan 1990; Harvard Med.School Focus 25 Jan 1990]

(Volume IX, page 285)

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