Harvard Medical School Dean George Q. Daley approved renaming the school's Holmes Society in honor of physician-scientist William Augustus Hinton, Class of 1905, the first Black tenured professor at Harvard.
HMS and Harvard School of Dental Medicine students are assigned to one of five academic societies upon entering the schools. Until now, the Holmes Society bore the name of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Class of 1829, a writer, physician, and former Dean of Harvard Medical School.
Holmes was one of the first American intellectuals to promote the racist doctrine of eugenics. In 1850, he revoked the acceptances of the Medical School’s first three Black students, writing that the “intermixing of the white and black races in their lecture rooms is distasteful to a large portion of the class and injurious to the interests of the school.”
Hinton — a 1905 graduate of the College and later HMS — specialized in the fields of bacteriology and immunology. He created a new diagnostic blood test for syphilis, one the U.S. Public Health Service later adopted.
Earlier this year, two medical students launched a petition to rename the former Holmes Society due to Holmes’s support of eugenics and racism towards Black and Indigenous people. The petition garnered over 1000 signatures from HMS and HSDM faculty, administrators, students, and alumni.
A Faculty Council Subcommittee on Artwork and Cultural Representations task force composed of students and faculty drafted a set of qualities they hoped the society's new namesake would embody. The task force members then identified individuals who might best match those ideals, which led to Hinton’s selection.
“The quality that stood out about Professor Hinton, that I think really moved us towards his selection, was that he openly admitted his humanity,” Advisory Dean and Director of the Hinton Society Anthony V. D’Amico said. “There are times when people fail, and we saw one of his qualities is that he would fall in terms of his research or clinical practice, or in terms of his science, and he wouldn’t give up. And I think that that kind of tenacity and fortitude, courage, that students want to be reminded of.”
LaShyra T. Nolen, the author of the petition and Class of 2023 HMS student council president, said while the renaming of the academic society does not constitute an end to the conversation surrounding anti-racism at Harvard, this change makes clear that racist symbols or figures “are no longer going to be part of our DNA.”
Jalen A. Benson, the creator of the petition and a member of the Hinton Society, said as a Black student he finds it “so powerful to see that excellence will be rewarded, excellence will be recognized,” even if not during Hinton’s lifetime.
“Hinton wasn’t allowed to be a surgeon as he wanted to be, they wouldn’t take him on at Mass General,” Benson said. “So to see Harvard recognize contributions from people of color, especially Black people, means so much to me, because I can look and say I’m proud to be in Hinton, following the legacy of an exceptional provider, and especially an exceptional Black provider.”
“I think it’s powerful for all students because it tells them the way you look or where you’re from doesn't limit what you can do,” he added.
—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.