Chester M. Southam


“HORMESIS”: The Origin of the Term

The first mention of the term hormesis in the open scientific literature was in the article:

Southam, Chester, M. and Ehrlich, John. (1943). Effects of Extract of western red-cedar heartwood on certain wood-decaying fungi in culture. Phytopathology 33:517-524.

At the time of publication of this article, Chester M. Southam was a Master’s Degree candidate in the School of Forestry at the University of Idaho and John Ehrlich was his advisor. Their paper was accepted for publication on September 7, 1942 by the journal Phytopathology and was published in 1943. Southam received his Master’s Degree also in 1943.

In their paper, Southam and Ehrlich used the term “hormesis” on four separate occasions (once on page 519, once on page 520, and twice on page 523). On page 520 they stated “The term hormesis (adj. hormetic) is proposed to designate such a stimulatory effect of sub-inhibitory concentrations of any toxic substance of any organism.” Southam and Ehrlich observed an increase in the growth rate of various fungal species in very dilute solutions of red-cedar extract and noted that the enhanced rate of growth tended to decrease over time, eventually reaching normal growth rates. Thus, they stated, this “phenomenon represents an initial response, followed by progressive desensitization to sub-inhibitory concentration of a toxic constituent of the extract.” Subsequent to this publication, Southam and Ehrlich used the term “hormesis” in one other paper {see Southam, Ch. M. and Ehrlich, J. (1943). Decay resistance and physical characteristics of wood. Jour. Forestry 41:666-673}. Later, from the mid-1950’s on, Dr. Thomas Luckey adopted the term “hormesis” in a series of publications, giving considerable visibility to Southam and Ehrlich’s original definition.

It should be noted that the first mention of “hormesis” was actually not in the 1943 paper mentioned above but in Chester M. Southam’s 1941 University of Idaho undergraduate thesis. Entitled “A study of the saprogenicity, and factors influencing decay of certain brown–rot fungi on western red-cedar heartwood test blocks”, the initial term Southam used to describe the low dose stimulatory response was “toxicotrophic”. However, this term was neatly crossed out and replaced with the word “hormesis”. Thus, the true origin of the word can be pushed back to Southam’s 1941 undergraduate work. Click here view Southam’s original thesis.

Both Southam and Ehrlich went on to significant and substantial professional careers, apparently never again using the word “hormesis” in their published articles. Professor Ehrlich left the University of Idaho for a position at the University of Minnesota with the intent of developing improved methods to enhance the production of penicillin, a major priority during World War II. After a year, he left Minnesota to join the pharmaceutical company Parke-Davis in Detroit, Michigan. While at Parke-Davis he was part of the team that discovered, in 1947, the first broad-spectrum antibiotic chloramphenicol {Ehrlich, J., Bartz, Q.R., Smith, R.M., Joslyn, D. A. , and Burkholder, P. R. (1947). Chloromycetin, a new antibiotic from a soil actinomycete. Science 106:417}. This discovery was considered of such public health significance that one of the paper’s co-authors, Professor Paul Burkholder of Yale University, was nominated for the Nobel Prize for this research achievement. Dr. Ehrlich passed away in 1992.

In 1943 Chester M. Southam entered Columbia Medical School, graduating in 1947. Becoming a very prominent and controversial researcher at the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research in New York City, he directed his interests to cancer, biology, and the body’s immune response to developing tumors. He published over 100 articles on these and related topics. He became president of the American Association of Cancer Research in 1968 and passed away in 2002 (Lerner, B. H. 2004 New England Journal Medicine 351:628-630).

These two gentlemen had remarkable scientific careers, each going in his own very different direction after leaving the University of Idaho. However, for a brief moment, at the University of Idaho, their careers intersected and they created the term “hormesis”.