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American Medical Biographies/Wormley, Theodore George

Wormley, Theodore George (1826–1897)

Theodore George Wormley, toxicologist and legal physician, was born at Wormleysburg, Pennsylvania (a town named after his ancestors) on the first day of April, 1826. His people were of German descent. They were also very poor, and Wormley not only had to furnish the means for his education, but also to support his mother.

When sixteen years old, he went to Dickinson College, for three years devoting himself to his work with the utmost assiduity. After studying medicine with Dr. John J. Meyers, he entered the Philadelphia College of Medicine, in Philadelphia, where he received his degree in 1849.

For a while he had some difficulty in finding a suitable practice. Spending almost a year in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, then a few months in Chillicothe, Ohio, he eventually settled (in 1850) in Columbus, where he remained twenty-seven years, rising to the top of the profession. During most of this time he was professor of toxicology in the Starling Medical College.

In 1877 he removed to Philadelphia, as he had been elected to the chair of chemistry and toxicology in the University of Pennsylvania. It is interesting to note that for this position he competed with the famous John James Reese (q.v.). He held the chair almost twenty years.

Wormley was a very extensive writer, his magnum opus being a large volume entitled, "The Micro-chemistry of Poisons," 1867. Of this world-famous book it is well-nigh impossible to speak in terms of too high praise. Though the work is large , (the second edition contains almost 800 pages) it is very concisely written, and is characterized throughout by the ripest and fullest scholarship and the most painstaking accuracy. Never before perhaps had toxicological subjects been handled with quite the high degree of literary skill and the miraculous care for detail and truth which appear in this volume. The work soon became known throughout the medicolegal world. This work is dedicated "To my wife, who, by her skilful hand, assisted so largely in its preparation, this volume is affectionately inscribed." At the end of the book are fifteen pages of steel engravings, numbering ninety-six engravings in all, each of the utmost fineness and accuracy. At the bottom of each page we read, "Mrs. T. G. Wormley, ad. nat. del. et sculp." It is told by Dr. John Ashhurst, Jr., that, when the manuscript of the book was handed to the publishers, the latter declared that it would be impossible to find a draughtsman capable of reproducing the illustrations by which the manuscript was accompanied, so great was their exquisite delicacy. In fact, a number of engravers, to whom the matter of reproducing these illustrations was submitted, declared (according to the American Literary Gazette) that the work, assuming that it could be done at all, would cost the engraver who did it, his sight. Thereupon Mrs. Wormley set herself to work to acquire the difficult art of engraving on steel. This feat she accomplished to such a degree that the desired engravings were produced by her hand and remain to this day a marvel of the steel engraver's art.

Mrs. Wormley was born at Columbus, Ohio, Oct. 5, 1837. Her maiden name was Anne Eliza Gill, and she was the daughter of John Loriman and Mary Waters Gill. Further engraving, we may add, of a highly accurate sort, was done for the second edition of the book by Dr. Wormley's elder daughter, Mrs, John Marshall, of Philadelphia—with whom the mother resided after her husband's death.

Dr. Wormley was a man of medium height, always smooth-shaven, and had brown hair and blue eyes. He was a healthy, vigorous man, and delighted to go the winter through without an overcoat.

He was not merely a scientist of super-abounding energy, but also a man of strong and sincere affections and sentiments, a lover of nature, of music, and his home.

His love of nature is shown by his wide-ranging investigations in other fields than that of his own particular specialty. He was interested in ornithology and icthyology, in crystallography, in infusorial earth and diatoms. He discovered a species of fish (of brilliant coloring) to which he gave the name of Etheostoma Iris. He mounted many birds and fishes, which are to be found at the present moment in the Smithsonian Institution at Washington. And birds and fishes, crystals and diatoms, were to him but parts of a very great and very beautiful world which he loved, and which he tried to comprehend for the reason that he loved it.

During the summer of 1896, Prof. Wormley began to be attacked by the disease which eventually ended his life. At that time he was on a farm in Berks County, working among plants and flowers, as he very much loved to do. In the fall he went back to the city and his customary teaching, but soon if became apparent that he was seriously affected with chronic Bright's disease, and the end of the great worker arrived one quiet Sunday morning, January 3, 1897. The world of legal medicine lost perhaps its clearest mind; while a very much larger and broader world was undoubtedly the poorer for the dropping out of a fine example of a quiet, unassuming scholar and gentleman.

He was co-editor of the Ohio Medical and Surgical Journal, from 1862–4. A tolerably full list of his writings is in the Surgeon-general's Catalogue, Washington, D. C.

Jour. of the Amer. Chem. Soc., April, 1897, vol. xix, No. 4. Edgar F. Smith. Portrait.
Trans. Coll. of Phys. of Phila., John Ashurst, 1897.
Univ. Med. Mag., 1896–97, Alumni Notes.
Universities and Their Sons (Univ. of Penna.) vol. i. Portrait.