Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Dr. Frank Billings (1854–1932), physician and educator

Avi Ohry
Tel Aviv, Israel

Dr. Frank Billings. Photograph by Steffen, undated. University of Chicago Photographic Archive [apf1-00684].10

Dr. Frank Billings (1854–1932) was “one of the most conspicuous figures in American medicine,” rembered for developing the doctrine of focal infection from bacteria of the Streptococcus pneumococcus group via the teeth, tonsils, and other portals.1-3 Born in Wisconsin, he worked as a young man as a farmer and schoolmaster before turning to medicine. After graduating from the Chicago Medical School in 1881 and practicing in Chicago for a few years, he went to Vienna in 1885 to broaden his medical knowledge, studying clinical medicine under Hermann Nothnagel and attending lectures in London and Paris, notably those of Jean Charcot.4

After fifteen months he returned to Chicago to teach at Northwestern University and later at Rush Medical College. He established the John McCormick Institute for Infectious Diseases and became president of the American Medical Association. In 1915 Harvard University awarded him an honorary degree of Doctor of Science.4 He was also awarded degrees in 1924 by the University of Wisconsin, in 1926 by Northwestern University, and again in 1927 by the University of Chicago. He was the Chairman of the American Red Cross Commission to Russia and a colonel in the Medical Corps in the Second World War.

Billings was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 1918 and promoted to colonel, later to brigadier general. The next year, in a publication honoring the seventieth birthday of Sir William Osler, he wrote on rehabilitation of the disabled.5 In an article titled “The Secret Nostrum Evil”,6 too, he warned against frauds in foods and medicine who had manufactured “special mixtures” and visited physicians to distribute “literature” in support of these products. He was president of the Congress of Physicians and Surgeons in 1924 and was made officer of the Legion of Honor of France in 1928.4 After the war, he acted as chief of a division of “reconstruction” of disabled veterans, and reported on their rehabilitation by physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, electrotherapy, thermotherapy, both passive (massage, mechanotherapy) and active exercise (graduated calisthenics, military drills and games), and occupational therapy.7

In other publications he described how the army coped with the increase of infectious diseases, including the influenza pandemic, anemia, injuries and disabilities, and the remarkable results of treating patients with “shell shock” by applying military clinical experience. His legacy is remembered through books8 and memorial lectures,9 and he participated in the founding of the Albert Merritt Billings Hospital at the University of Chicago in memory of his uncle.10


  1. AGN. “The Late Dr. Frank Billings.” Can Med Assoc J. 1933;28(2):201.
  2. FH Garrison. An Introduction to the History of Medicine, 4th ed. Philadelphia and London: WB Saunders Co., 1929: 634.
  3. F Billings. “Focal Infection.” New York: Lane Lectures, 1916.
  4. JA Capps. “Dr. Frank Billings.” From “The Growth of Medicine” lecture series, May 23, 1956. Northwestern University Medical School Quarterly Bulletin. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3803534/pdf/QBullNorthwestUnivMedSch-30-4-376_59.pdf
  5. The Bulletin of the Alumni Association of Rush Medical College, vol 15, no 1, November 1919. Archived at https://archive.org/stream/bulletinofalumni15rush/bulletinofalumni15rush_djvu.txt
  6. F Billings. “The Secret Nostrum Evil.” Cal State J Med. 1905;3(12):379-81.
  7. F Billings. “The rehabilitation of the disabled.” JAMA, 1919;72:1505-13.
  8. EF Hirsch. Frank Billings: The architect of medical education, an apostle of excellence in clinical practice, a leader in Chicago medicine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
  9. WS Middleton. “The Natural History of Disease: Frank Billings Memorial Lecture.” AMA Arch Intern Med. 1956;98(4):401-8.
  10. “Developing the Medical Center.” In: Building for a Long Future: The University of Chicago and Its Donors, 1889-1930. Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library. https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/collex/exhibits/building-long-future/developing-medical-center/

AVI OHRY, MD, is married with two daughters. He is Emeritus Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at Tel Aviv University, the former director of Rehabilitation Medicine at Reuth Medical and Rehabilitation Center in Tel Aviv, and a member of The Lancet‘s Commission on Medicine & the Holocaust. He conducts award-winning research in neurological rehabilitation, bioethics, medical humanities and history, and on long-term effects of disability and captivity. He plays the drums with three jazz bands.

Winter 2024



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.