Physician for the United States Army who in 1899 determined the cause of a type of tropical anemia that afflicted a large part of the Puerto Rican rural population, particularly those who worked in the coffee-growing zone. He convinced the government to create the Porto Rico Anemia Commission to study the illness and provide treatment. The Commission was later transformed into the Anemia Dispensary Service and later into the Transmittable and Tropical Diseases Service. Ashford was an assiduous researcher of the tropical diseases of Puerto Rico and, along with other physicians from the United States and Puerto Rico, organized medical services for the populace. He was also involved in the creation of the Institute of Tropical Medicine, which later became the School of Tropical Medicine, a precursor to the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine.
Bailey K. Ashford was born on September 28, 1873, in Washington, D.C. He was the son of Francis Ashford, who was a professor and dean of the School of Medicine at Georgetown University. He initially enrolled at George Washington University and after one year of studies he decided to follow his father’s footsteps and he transferred to the School of Medicine where his father worked. He completed his medical studies in 1896 and the following year he enlisted in the United States Army Medical Corps with the rank of lieutenant. When the Spanish-American War began in 1898, he was sent to Cuba. Later, he joined the expedition to Puerto Rico led by General Nelson Miles.
In Puerto Rico, Ashford served as a doctor for the troops in the field. Later, he was assigned to the San Juan General Hospital. In February of 1899, he married María Asunción López Nussa, a young woman from Mayaguez who was one of the daughters of Ramón Belisario López y Carlo, founder of the daily newspaper La Correspondencia. That same year, he became director of the Ponce General Hospital.
On August 8, 1899, Hurricane San Ciriaco struck the island. It left behind 3,369 dead and also caused considerable damage to crops and structures, which affected the island’s economy. To address the situation, Dr. Ashford set up tents on the hospital grounds where medical personnel could attend to the considerable number of people injured during the passage of the hurricane, as well as those who caught some other illness because of the precarious conditions on the island in the aftermath.
From the time of his arrival in Puerto Rico, Bailey Ashford had been interested in the anemia suffered by many rural Puerto Ricans and generally attributed to malnutrition. While he was working in the provisional hospital in Ponce, he began to search for the true cause of the illness. Through his research, he discovered certain parasites living in the intestines of rural residents. That was how he reached the conclusion that the tropical anemia, or uncinariasis, that afflicted a significant number of Puerto Ricans, was caused by a parasite know as Necator americanus that entered the body mainly through the feet.
He published the results of his findings in the New York Medical Journal in 1900. At first, however, his discovery was not accepted by many of his colleagues because they, like most of the population, thought that the illness, which was widespread across all of the island at a level that could be considered a pandemic, was caused by malnutrition.
It was not until 1904 that the government finally took action on the issue. The Puerto Rico Anemia Commission was created to study the illness and provide treatment, as well as education about prevention. The commission’s board consisted of Ashford, one of his collaborators in his anemia research, W.W. King, and Pedro Gutiérrez Igaravídez, director of the Bayamón Hospital, who had also studied the disease. Originally, they established themselves in Utuado. They began treating the disease through the use of fig salt, to reduce the patient’s protective mucous, followed by a dose of timol to kill the parasites. In this first campaign, they treated 5,490 cases.
The second campaign was conducted between 1905 and 1906, with a considerable allocation of funds by the government. Ashford and his colleagues established their main station in Aibonito and created substations in each district of the island under the direction of Puerto Rican physicians. Over the following years, the research work intensified, sanitary regulations were approved, the construction and use of latrines was promoted and the treatment centers multiplied. Simultaneously, an educational campaign was conducted in the public schools to explain the nature of the disease and literature was distributed to be read in public. Other methods of treating the illness were also tested.
Under the direction of Ashford, King and Gutiérrez, the commission was converted into the Anemia Dispensary Service in 1908, increasing the number of treatment centers around the island. During the seven years of the campaign, some 310,000 inhabitants were cured and the number of deaths caused by the disease was reduced by 90 percent.
During the campaigns against anemia, the treatment provided was not limited to that one disease, as the centers were visited by many people afflicted with conditions and diseases typical in the tropics. To broaden the study and treatment of endemic illnesses, the government ordered a reorganization of the Dispensary Service, which resulted in the creation of the Transmittable and Tropical Diseases Service.
Because of the lack of an institution dedicated purely to researching tropical diseases, Ashford and his colleagues planned and promoted the creation of the Institute of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in 1912. Its first headquarters was in the basement of the Casa Rosa, the former stables of the Spanish governors in Old San Juan. Ashford and other scientists studied tropical diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, yellow fever, syphilis, typhoid fever, bronchopneumonia cancer, and heart disease.
Ashford was particularly interested in tropical celiac disease, a common illness in the tropics and subtropics that produces anomalies in the lining of the small intestine that prevent the body from absorbing nutrients normally. In 1913, he presented his findings to the American Society of Tropical Medicine in Washington, D.C., and published them in the American Journal of Tropical Diseases and Preventive Medicine. His research led him to conclude that it was an infectious disease caused by Monilia psilosis.
The Institute was a pioneer in the study of tropical diseases, but to make it a significant entity in the field, Ashford and the other founders proposed to create a School of Tropical Medicine where they could also train physicians and expert researchers in this field of scientific research. The creation of this institution became fact with Joint Resolution No. 3, which was approved on June 23, 1924. Because of the need for an institution to train doctors and health professionals, the Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly approved Law No. 378 on May 15, 1949, that replaced the law governing the School of Tropical Medicine and ordered the creation of the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine.
From the time of his arrival in Puerto Rico in 1898, Bailey K. Ashford spent most of his life on the island. He settled in the Condado with his wife and children and only left the island for short periods of time, such as when he served as commander of the Medical Department of the Army’s First Division during World War I or when it was necessary for his research.
He died on September 10, 1934, in San Juan. An avenue and a hospital in the Condado sector of the capital are named for him, as well as a public school in Brooklyn, New York. The Puerto Rico Conservation Trust acquired his former residence in the Condado. After renovations, it is now used as a community activity center. Since 1941, the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene has granted an annual award in his honor to scientists who have distinguished themselves in tropical medicine research.
Ashford, Bailey K. A Soldier in Science: The Autobiography of Bailey K. Ashford. San Juan, P. R.: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1998. Google Books. Web. 13 mayo 2010.
“Bailey K. Ashford Medal”. The American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, s. f. Web. 13 mayo 2010.
“Bailey K. Ashford’s Biography (1873-1934)”. Walter Reed Army Medical Center. U. S. Army Medical Department, s. f. Web. 13 mayo 2010.
Lambert, R. A. “Escuela de Medicina Tropical de la Universidad de Puerto Rico: Bajo los auspicios de La Unviersidad de Columbia”. Organización Panamericana de la Salud, s. f. Web. PDF.
Mayo Santana, Raúl. “Escuela de Medicina”. Instituto de Historia de las Ciencias de la Salud. Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Ciencias Médicas, 30 septiembre 2001. Web. 13 mayo 2010.
Artículos sobre la Escuela de Medicina Tropical de la EPRL
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 03, 2014.
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