Ralph D. Lillie

Ralph Dougall Lillie


Born: 1 August 1896, Cucumonga, California

Died: 5 October 1979, New Orleans, Louisiana

Academic Degrees

  • AB: Stanford University, Stanford, California, 1917
  • MD: Stanford University, Stanford, California, 1920 (influenced by William Ophuls, a student of Johannes Orth, who had studied under Rudolf Virchow)

Academic Positions

  • 1960 - 1979 Research Professor of Pathology, Louisiana State University Medical Center, New Orleans, Louisiana

Military Service

  • 1920 Commissioned, U.S. Public Health Service; retired as Captain, 1960

Military Assignments

  • 1925 - 1960 Assigned to the Hygienic Laboratory in Washington, D.C. (the precursor of the National Institute of Health)
  • 1948 - 1960 Chief of the Laboratory of Pathology and Histochemistry, National Institute of Health

Selected Career Highlights

  • Internationally recognized pioneer, innovator, and great figure in the field of histochemistry; regarded as one of the world's leading 20th century authorities in the field. Self-trained in methodology of organic chemistry and became proficient in synthesis/purification of dyes and their chemical mordants. Demonstrated the value of histochemistry as a vital adjunct to pathology.

  • Collaborated with NIH researchers on experimental pathology problems ranging from pellagra to chemical and pharmacological toxicology (the first fractionalization of the vitamin B complex) to infectious diseases (e.g., Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, encephalitis, lymphocytic choric meningitis). In 1931 conducted autopsies on four victims of eastern spotted fever and studied histological material on the fifth. Helped show that choline and methionine were the factors necessary to prevent dietary cirrhosis of rats.

  • Author of the world-renowned "Histopathologic Technique and Practical Histochemistry" (a "classic" which went through multiple editions). Also took over H.J.Conn's Biological Stains (Ninth Edition)(1969-).

  • Wrote 337 research publications (producing as many as 15/year at times). Wrote extensively about dozens and dozens of stains including: Gram stain, calcium stain, mucus detection, Romanowski stain, methylene blue, thiazine dyes, hemosiderin, Masson trichrome modification; Giemsa stain, dichromate, azure B eosinates and dozens of other stains; also embedding paraffin blocks in the vacuum oven, histologic mounting media, bone decalcification, use of buffered solutions, etc.

  • Joined the Biological Stain Commission (BSC) as a Trustee in 1940 and served 39 years. The BSC was making substantial inroads into the solution of problems caused by using impure and poorly characterized dyes. Became further involved in the purification, characterization, and application of biological stains.

  • When European sources of dyes became unavailable again because of the second World War, he busied himself with developing better stains (e.g., malaria/thiazine stains). Also sought to find alternate synthetic dyes for routine histological usage.

  • Played a key role in the founding of the Histochemistry Society and was its first Secretary (1950). President (1957). In 1953 he became the first Editor-in-Chief of the Society's Journal of Histochemistry and Cytochemistry and continued as such until 1964.

  • Peer recognition as a chemist came in 1969: elected as a Fellow of the American Institute of Chemists, an organization with which he had no previous connection.

  • At age 64 he was given a lab at LSU/New Orleans where he worked vigorously for 19 more years. Extraordinary productivity in the face of advancing years and failing eyesight; a tribute to a keen mind and exceptional tenacity. Even after the age of 70, he wrote as many as 10-12 papers/year. Although visual problems caused him some difficulties, his wife, Ethel, transported him to and from work in downtown New Orleans and held his hand and traveled with him to work.


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