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Thomas B. Turner was born January 28, 1902 in Prince Frederick, Calvert County, Maryland where he received his elementary education in a one-room school house. Attending St. John’s College in Annapolis he acquired a foundation in the classics and earned a B. S. degree in 1921. He remained active for many years as a St. John’s alumnus. Turner attended the University of Maryland Medical School, receiving his M. D. in 1925. He came to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1927 as a Jacques Loeb fellow and was assigned to the syphilis unit. During the early years of his career, he developed an expertise in the biology of spirochetal organisms, the family of bacterium containing organisms that cause leprosy, syphilis (treponema pallidum), yaws, and Lyme disease, among others.

Although he originally intended to return to Calvert County as a country doctor, his passion and expertise drew him into a national and worldwide effort to eradicate venereal diseases. Prevention and treatment of STDs was a focus of military medicine in the U.S. and Europe during the world wars. In 1930, as a lecturer in Public Health Administration of the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, he taught the first venereal disease control course offered at Johns Hopkins. Leaving Johns Hopkins in 1932, Turner joined the Rockefeller Foundation’s International Health Division (IHD), where, he directed a study of Yaws in Jamaica and conducted research at the IHD laboratories in New York City. He returned to Johns Hopkins in 1936 to oversee the development of a program in Venereal Disease Control to train public health officers and future physicians in charge of local, state, and national programs. The program also offered training to physicians of the Armed Services during World War II. In 1939, Turner was named professor and chairman of the department of bacteriology in the school of hygiene and public health. As chair of the department from 1939 to 1957, Turner helped to advance the use of basic science in public health. He succeeded in making the department of bacteriology a robust research entity with strong connections to many others at Johns Hopkins. The department of bacteriology was renamed the department of microbiology in 1952 and was made a joint department with the school of medicine in 1957.

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During the 1930s and 1940s, Turner and his colleagues made important research contributions to syphilis and the treponematoses. Turner’s own research interests focused primarily on the investigation of immunity in syphilis. He received funding from the U.S. Public Health Service, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Baltimore City Health Department for syphilis research. In 1939, Turner discovered a treponemal immobilization (TPI) antibody. Later a colleague in his lab discovered that this antibody was uniformly present in patients with untreated syphilitic infection. The TPI test became an essential tool for determining accurate rates of syphilis infection and eliminating false positives. Turner identified the optimal conditions for preserving (freezing and thawing for use) spirochetes outside an animal host, allowing scientists to conduct experiments on strains over time. He was also highly regarded for the methods and practices he developed for prevention and control of syphilis. The training program he led at the school of hygiene and public health involved clinical case work, serology in the lab, and epidemiological fieldwork. Turner taught key methods and goals of a syphilis control program, particularly the need to treat both latent and active infections to prevent the spread of disease. From 1940 to the early 1950s, Turner served on major national research advising and funding committees including the Syphilis Study Section of the National Institutes of Health and as Chair of the National Research Council’s Subcommittee on Venereal Diseases. In 1950, the Treponematoses Laboratory Center, a consulting laboratory for the World Health Organization and the center of a world-wide attack on diseases caused by spirochetes, began operating at the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health under Turner’s direction.

Starting in 1942, Turner served in the Army Medical Corps, attaining the rank of Colonel. As consultant to the Surgeon General of the Department of the Army, he led the Army’s syphilis eradication program, serving as Director of the Venereal Disease Control Division. With the beginning of World War II, high rates of syphilis among recruits revived fears from World War I that venereal disease would impede the fighting effectiveness of the armed forces. Turner rejected the Army policy on abstinence as the major mode of venereal disease control and approved the massive distribution of condoms among troops at the rate of up to 50 million per month throughout the war. Turner also authorized large-scale advertising campaigns aimed at convincing soldiers to protect themselves by using condoms or getting prophylactic treatment soon after having sex. However, he had to fight widespread opposition from those who believed his programs encouraged promiscuity. Under Turner’s leadership the Army achieved the lowest wartime incidence rate of venereal disease among soldiers ever recorded. He was awarded the U.S. Army Legion of Merit for his achievements in preventing syphilis among U.S. servicemen and among civilians in the U.S. and occupied Europe.

From the late 1940s onwards Turner began to shift the focus of his research from syphilis to polio. He collaborated with David Bodian and Howard Howe on their research that identified the three immunological types of poliovirus which explain why previous vaccines against a single strain had failed. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis appointed Turner to several key committees, the most important of which was the Virus Research and Epidemiology Committee that oversaw research dealing with poliovirus and with vaccine development. Turner was one of seven members of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis Advisory Committee that approved the Salk vaccine as safe to test in clinical trials in 1954, which led to the successful prevention of polio in millions of children.

Named professor of medicine in 1951, Turner became the eighth dean of the school of medicine in 1957 and held the office until 1968. A remarkably effective administrator, Turner worked to increase communications within the school of medicine, between the school of medicine and the hospital, and between the medical institutions and the university. During his tenure the school of medicine underwent its greatest expansion in its history up to that point. The school received a record amount of federal government grants and contracts; its endowment funds doubled and its annual operating budget increased five-fold. The school also doubled its physical plant, added new departments, increased enrollment, and tripled its faculty. As dean, Turner advocated that admission criteria be based on merit and not restricted to any group of persons. In 1963, the first African American students were admitted to the school of medicine.

Turner participated in many scientific and policymaking groups in the health fields and received many tributes for his achievements. In 1966 the University of Maryland conferred upon him an honorary degree of Doctor of Science and in 1968 the University’s Medical Alumni Association presented Turner with the Gold Key and Honor Award for outstanding contributions to medicine and distinguished service to mankind. That same year the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine named its new auditorium in his honor. In 1969, the American Social Health Association (ASHA) awarded Turner, who had played a leadership role at ASHA, their highest tribute, the William Freeman Snow Award for Distinguished Service to Humanity. In 1991 Johns Hopkins University awarded Turner an honorary doctorate of humane letters.

Turner was passionate about medical education, the history of medicine, and The Johns Hopkins University. He had been active in early efforts to establish comprehensive healthcare programs for residents of the immediate community of East Baltimore. He considered Johns Hopkins’ most important role was as a world leader in advancing medical research and medical education. After leaving the dean’s office, he was named the first archivist of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. While serving as archivist he implemented an archival program and wrote a history of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, A Heritage of Excellence. In 1982, he stepped down as archivist to head the newly-formed Alcoholic Beverage Medical Research Foundation.

Turner was affiliated with Johns Hopkins for 75 years. He published over 90 articles and seven books, including a memoir that offers an intimate portrait of medicine at Johns Hopkins during the first half of the twentieth century. Turner cultivated an important and extensive network. At the time that he became Dean of the school of medicine, he had personally known every previous Dean except for William Osler. He remained active at the University as an emeritus professor up until his death at the age of 100 on September 22, 2002.

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Scope and Content

The Thomas B. Turner Collection documents the role Turner played as an expert in treponemal diseases, including his research, treatment, and training of personnel in the field, at a significant moment in the history of these diseases. It also documents the administrative role Turner played in the medical institutions at Johns Hopkins from the 1940s up through the 1960s, particularly as dean of the school of medicine. The collection contains records from the Microbiology Department of the School of Hygiene and Public Health and School of Medicine where Turner taught and conducted research.
Collection records document efforts beginning in the mid-1930s by Turner and his colleagues at Hopkins and elsewhere to study, diagnose, and treat spirochetal diseases, particularly syphilis and yaws. Early documents and photographs pertain to Turner’s work at the International Health Division of the Rockefeller Foundation to study and control Yaws in Jamaica during the mid-1930s. There are papers pertaining to establishing the Venereal Disease Training Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health that was the first of its kind in the country. Collection reports, meeting minutes, notebooks, photographs and correspondence bear on issues related to coordinated efforts to improve knowledge and control over these diseases: the identification of venereal disease control problems, early drug clinical trials and clinical treatments, animal laboratory experiments, studies of untreated syphilis, the control of sexually transmitted diseases at the front during wartime, efforts to measure incidence and prevalence of syphilis in the urban center of Eastern Baltimore City, and international collaboration to identify, diagnose, and develop treatments.
Letters and reports provide detailed accounts by members of the U. S. Army Surgeon General’s staff during WWII of responses to the problem of sexually transmitted diseases particularly syphilis and gonorrhea. They show how Turner, as the Director of the Armed Service’s Venereal Disease Control Division, under the direction of the Surgeon General and along with other faculty consultants, sought to overturn army policies that penalized soldiers who contracted such diseases. They pursued strategies for gathering and disseminating information, including tours of clinics and recreation sites in the U. S. and theaters of war as well as soldier education campaigns. Subjects covered in these materials include challenges to and methods of diagnosis, prophylactic stations, difficulty in treating soldiers in the field, the increasing collaboration at the time among military and civilian authorities, and chemical (drug) treatments. While penicillin had been shown to be effective in the treatment of gonorrhea by 1943, supplies of the drug were too limited for its use on a large scale. Penicillin was not the treatment of choice for syphilis until 1944.
This collection further documents a large scale effort during the 1940s and 1950s to improve medical services worldwide. A longstanding consultant to the U. S. Army and the World Health Organization (WHO), Turner received copies of reports by fellow physicians working as consultants to the military in the theaters of operation in Europe, North Africa, the Far East, and Latin America. These reports address the contributions of and conditions for medical personnel working in hospitals in various countries. Records document the orientation and momentum during the final years of world war II and its immediate aftermath toward improving social conditions and promoting health and future peace. Such efforts focused on education, the establishment of new organizations, such as UNESCO, new treatments, distributions of scale, and the coordination of resources from countries, especially the U.S., already mobilized for international war. Related noteworthy materials pertain to the establishment at Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health of the International Treponematoses Laboratory Center, a joint endeavor with the WHO. There are also research records pertaining to tetanus and polio vaccination studies.
Turner had important longstanding affiliations with the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Research Council (NRC), U. S. Public Health Service (USPHS), the World Health Organization (WHO), the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP), the American Social Health Association, and as an alumnus and member of the Board of Visitors and Governors of St. John’s college.
There are also many documents pertaining to Turner’s extensive role in shaping administrative policies at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. These include meeting minutes and notes from numerous committees on which Turner sat and chaired, as well as documentation from Turner’s meetings and correspondence during his deanship with the school’s faculty and top administrators.
This collection also contains materials brought together by Turner in order to document the history of the Johns Hopkins University medical institutions. These materials include, among others, correspondence and many newspaper clippings. Turner’s ideas about medical education and training, particularly medical school, are also well documented in his papers. Related materials include committee meeting materials, news clippings, scripts of speeches, and records pertaining to publications by Turner.
Collection materials include documents, photographs, and a small set of artifacts.
Related material: See also the institutional records of The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Record Group 3, Office of the Dean of the Medical Faculty, Thomas B. Turner for records created by Turner during his tenure as dean from 1957 to 1968.
The Rockefeller Archive Center contains records pertaining to Turner’s work for the International Health Division as part of the Jamaica Yaws Commission and the IHD laboratory as well as correspondence pertaining to Tuner’s consultant work with the Rockefeller Foundation.

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