With the coronavirus (COVID-19) curve showing little indication of flattening out—it, in fact, appears to be nowhere near its apex—we seize the moment and profile one African American scientist who made a major breakthrough in microbiology.
Harold Amos was the first Black American microbiologist and the first to become the chair of the Harvard Medical School. He was born in 1918 in Pennsauken, N.J., not too far from Cherry Hill, where his parents had close ties with the Quakers. They often gave the family gifts, including volumes of books. One of the books was the biography of the famed scientist Louis Pasteur, whose use of goats as experimental animals appealed to Amos given he had no affection for the family goat. Pasteur’s life and work had a great influence and it sparked his interest in science, particularly the realm of life he saw through a microscope.
After spending his early years in the city’s segregated schools, Amos attended high school in Camden where he graduated in 1936 at the top of his class. At a time when very few African Americans were recipients of full college scholarships, he acquired one to Springfield College in Massachusetts and in 1941 graduated summa cum laude, with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry. The following year he was hired as a graduate assistant in the school’s biology department.
That same year he was drafted into the U.S. Army, rising to become a warrant officer in a battalion that supplied gasoline to regular troops. For two years he was stationed in England and then was sent to France six days after the invasion of Normandy. This stint in France began his lifelong love for French culture. With the war over, he returned to the states in 1946 and almost immediately began study of the medical and biological sciences. As a student at the Division of Medical Science at Harvard Medical School, he distinguished himself, acquiring various degrees as well as a Ph.D.
According to a profile from the Harvard Medical School website, Amos’ thesis project was in virology, “on agents affecting infectivity of Herpes virus, using plaquing on the chick chorio-allantoic membrane as earlier reported by John Enders in the Department. Perhaps it was a relief afterwards to completely switch fields, a Fulbright Fellowship taking him to the Pasteur Institute ––and back to France to reinforce the Francophile within––to work with threonine mutants of Escherichia coli in the laboratory of Georges Cohen.”
Back in France, he renewed his passion for the culture and found time to refine his mastery of the piano and his passion for classical music. There were frequent visits to St. Germain des Prés quartier where he was often in the company of a coterie of jazz musicians, including such notables as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.
But most of his time was spent at the Pasteur Institute in the company of numerous outstanding scholars and scientists. When he returned to Harvard and took a position on the faculty at the medical school, he began researching E. Coli and its phages, “a notable one being the 1958 finding of 5-methylcytosine in E. coli RNA, confirmed only decades later,” the profile noted. Even so, it was the study of animal cells that consumed him. “And that was not in the usual thrust of employing viruses as probes of higher cell function, but rather to focus directly on the cells. Over 30 years he directed an unusually broad array of studies: on the use of bacterial RNA to program higher cell protein synthesis, on enzyme inductions, insulin, serum, temperature effects, ribosomes, phosphoproteins, RNA metabolism, and, particularly influential, a thread on glucose starvation, hexose metabolism and transport,” noted his profile in the Harvard Medical School.
Teaching, he often reported, was one of his greatest joys. And he remained an active faculty member at Harvard Medical School for nearly 50 years. He rose through the academic ranks becoming a full professor in 1969. In 1975 he was named the Maude and Lillian Presley Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics and became professor emeritus in 1988. From 1968 to 1971, and again from 1975 to 1978, he served as chair of the department, thereby becoming the first African to head a department at the Harvard Medical School. Amos also served twice as chair of the Division of Medical Sciences, from 1971 to 1975 and from 1978 to 1988. In these roles he provided creative, forward-looking leadership with fairness and diplomacy.
Amos served on a countless number of boards, including the President’s Cancer Panel and was the president of the Massachusetts Division of the American Cancer Society. His service to the community brought him a roomful of honors and awards, perhaps none more noteworthy than being the first Charles Drew World Medical Prize from Howard University in 1989. He was as noted for his research and teaching as he was for his modesty, which was typified when friends decided his bust should be placed in the Division of Medical Sciences graduate student lounge when it was named in Harold’s honor. He refused to sit for the sculptor, and a photograph from which the sculptor could work was only obtained by subterfuge.
He was 70 when he retired from the Harvard Medical School but soon thereafter he accepted a position as the first national director of the Minority Medical Faculty Development Program (MMFDP) of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving until 1994. In 2004, this program was renamed the Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program. Reflecting his concern for the academic family at all age levels, Harold also conceived the medical school’s highly popular annual Emeritus Day and Symposium, which is still ongoing. A few days before his death, he was still working full-time in the laboratory of his long-time friend Jack Murphy at Boston University and writing two manuscripts on glycerol metabolism. He died in Boston on February 26, 2003, shortly after suffering a stroke.