In Rochester history
In the early years of the School of Medicine and Dentistry, a faculty member and a student collaborate in the search for a hormone.
When George Washington Corner arrived in Rochester in September, 1924, to take a position as professor of anatomy, he took a taxi from the YMCA, where he had booked a room, to Elmwood Avenue, then at the southern edge of the city.
In his autobiography, Corner called Elmwood Avenue “hardly more than a country road” that opened into a wide field that recently was a pasture for horses. He described what he saw: level, open country dotted with handsome trees and the quiet Genesee River. He also saw the frame of the building that would house Strong Memorial Hospital and the University Rochester’s School of Medicine and Dentistry.
Corner stayed at the School of Medicine and Dentistry for 17 years, a period during which he made several discoveries, published many papers and solidified his reputation. When he died in 1981 at the age of 91, his biographer for The Royal Society, the oldest scientific academy, said Corner was, for many years, both the dominant and most respected figure in anatomy in America.
In 1927, Corner invited Willard M. Allen, then finishing his first year as a student in the School of Medicine and Dentistry, to work with him. Allen had a reputation as an excellent chemist. Corner, who already had made several discoveries about ovulation and pregnancy, was seeking the hormone of the corpus luteum responsible for progestational changes.
In about a year, after many tedious experiments involving hundreds of extracts from the corpus luteum of rabbits, the two discovered the hormone eventually named progesterone. It was a major step on the path to the development of contraceptives. By 1933, Allen and another collaborator had isolated the hormone, as had several other scientists.
In 1940, Corner, a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and its medical school, returned to Baltimore as director of the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Embryology, which was a part of Hopkins. He held the position for 15 years. When he retired, he wrote a history of the first 50 years of the Rockefeller Institute and then became executive officer of the American Philosophical Society for 16 years. Corner also wrote two autobiographies.
Allen, who graduated from the School of Medicine and Dentistry in 1932, was made an instructor in the School in 1936, and, in 1938, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology. In 1940, he was named chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University School of Medicine. He was the first Rochester medical graduate to attain this professorial rank. Allen served as chair and as obstetrician-in-chief at Barnes and Allied Hospitals until his retirement in 1971. He then was appointed professor of obstetrics at the University of Maryland and served as associate dean of the medical school there from 1976 to 1982. He died in 1993.
Allen was the first to administer progesterone to a person, in 1942, for the treatment of dysfunctional uterine bleeding. He made several other major findings, including specifying the role of progesterone in the maintenance of pregnancy.
Throughout their careers, Corner and Allen praised each other as scientists and collaborators.
Allen’s files, papers and correspondence were presented by his daughter Lucille Anderson to the Edward G. Miner Library in the summer of 2002.
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