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April 2018

Theodore Lawless—A Physician-Scientist, Philanthropist, and Champion of the African American Community

Author Affiliations
  • 1Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • 2University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore
  • 3University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
JAMA Dermatol. 2018;154(4):446. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2017.6504

Theodore Lawless, MD, MS, DSc, LLD, was an African American dermatologist and scientist who was born in Louisiana in 1892 and received his medical degree from Northwestern University in 1919.1

While working as a professor of syphilology and dermatology at Northwestern Medical School in 1936, Dr Lawless helped develop electropyrexia, a pioneering technique to treat early syphilis.2 It entailed artificially raising a patient’s temperature and then administering intravenous chemotherapeutic agents. After initially struggling, Dr Lawless and his colleagues conducted 7 experiments in which they were able to treat primary and secondary syphilis with hyperpyrexia combined with large doses of arsphenamine and a bismuth salicylate. Dr Lawless observed that Spirochaeta pallida, the microorganism found in human syphilitic skin lesions, was destroyed at a temperature of 41°C maintained for 2 hours. He noted that spirochetes that were originally found on both chancres and lymph glands disappeared after applying this technique. All patients were free from all clinical, cutaneous, and serological signs and symptoms of syphilis for 18 months.3

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