About the Pathology Department's History

The Pathology Department at Brigham and Women's Hospital traces its root to the founding of the Boston Lying-in Hospital in 1832, the Free Hospital for Women in 1875 and Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in 1913.

The Pathology Services at Boston Lying-in and Free Hospital for Women are the forerunners of the Women and Perinatal division. Each hospital’s service has a glorious history of its own and has made a wide range of contributions in both Gynecologic and Obstetric pathology. A few include:

  • The first detailed morphologic descriptions of early human development (Hertig)
  • The first classifications of trophoblastic neoplasia (Hertig, Gore, Driscoll)
  • The detailed descriptions and documentation of placental development (Benirschke)
  • The CIN classification for early cervical neoplasia (Richart)
  • The first association between a human papillomavirus (HPV-16) and high grade CIN (Crum), Defined the cell origin for many ovarian, cervical, and endometrial cancers.

1892: Peter Brent Brigham Hospital

The early scene of the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (PBBH) was dominated by one giant figure in surgery – Harvey Cushing, who almost single-handedly created the field of modern neurosurgery. Like many surgeons of his time, Dr. Cushing and his associates (most notably Drs. Louis Eisenhardt and Percival Bailey) handled and examined the resection specimens themselves.

Dr. William Thomas Councilman, then Chairman of the Department of Pathology at Harvard Medical School, was appointed the first pathologist-in-chief at the opening of the nascent PBBH. Dr. Councilman had arrived in Harvard Medical School earlier in 1892 and was an expert in the study of amebiasis, diphtheria, smallpox and yellow fever. His vivid morphologic description of changes seen in the liver of yellow fever lives on today as "Councilman bodies."

1917-1947: Wolbach Years

Dr. S. Burt Wolbach, the famed researcher and bacteriologist, succeeded Councilman as the second Shattuck Professor and the Pathologist-in-Chief for the hospital from 1917 until 1947. Among Dr. Wolbach's numerous contributions to the understanding of pathologic basis of diseases, the discovery of the causative agents for Rocky mountain spotty fever and typhus as rickettsial organisms which bear his name (Wolbachiae) remains the most significant.

Dr. Wolbach also served as the Chairman of Pathology at the Harvard Medical School and spent most of his time doing research there. He would come to the hospital once a day to mentor the chief resident, who then taught other junior residents.

Dr. Wolbach was known to be an avid outdoor sportsman, horse-rider, hunter and fisherman, and always wore a fresh red carnation in the buttonhole during lectures to medical students. His independent wealth was also said to help the pathology department to thrive through hard times.

1952-1974: Post-War Era

Dr. Gustave Dammin became the Pathologist-in-Chief in 1952, five years after Wolbach's departure. Gus, as he was fondly known by his friends and colleagues, soon became one of the important members of the team that performed the first successful kidney transplant in 1954. He made seminal observations in the early days of organ transplant pathology and contributed to the understanding of mechanism of organ and tissue rejection.

Dr. Dammin's service in the Armed Forces Epidemiological Board and the various national and international pathology societies resulted in him traveling extensively around the globe. Continuing his interests in tropical parasitic diseases which he studied during his World War II service in Myanmar (Burma), he studied many infectious diseases, especially of gastrointestinal origin.

Later in his life, he was involved in the study of Lyme disease and babesiosis, two diseases endemic to Nantucket Island where his wife was born. Dr. Andrew Spielman, discoverer of the deer tick that transmits the organisms that cause both diseases, later named the deer tick Ixodes dammini in Dr. Dammin's honor.

During Dr. Dammin's tenure, the department resided in the Tackaberry building on Shattuck Street. Several notable figures in the department, including Drs. Mac Corson, Geraldine Pinkus, William Schoene, Nora Galvanek, Piero Paci and Franz von Lichtenberg, all joined during this period.

1974-2000: The Legacy of Ramzi S. Cotran

Dr. Ramzi Cotran, the Frank S. Mallory Professor of Pathology, was selected to succeed Dr. Dammin in 1974. Under Dr. Cotran's stewardship, the Pathology Department saw its most explosive growth.

An accomplished investigator in his own right, Dr. Cotran was a visionary leader who saw great value in interdisciplinary collaboration and believed in the importance of bridging clinical service and research. He set out to build a truly integrated academic pathology department and succeeded because of his charisma, leadership, warmth, skills, intellect and devotion.

His deliberate recruitment of young investigators in the early to mid-70's, including Drs. Venkatachalam, Abbas, Rennke, Gimbrone, Madara, Pober, Davies, Bevilacqua, and Collins, helped to establish the Brigham and Women's Hospital at the forefront of experimental pathology, and, in particular, the newly evolving field of vascular biology. Dr. Cotran also recruited Dr. Christopher Fletcher, one of the world’s preeminent surgical pathologists, under whose leadership the department became a renowned center of excellence in diagnostic surgical pathology.

Dr. Cotran presided over several mergers of the Harvard teaching hospitals and later the formation of Partners Healthcare, an amalgamation of two leading teaching hospitals, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital. At each step along the way, his wisdom and remarkable leadership skills helped to pave a smooth transition in each of these complex processes.

Dr. Cotran's influence reached far beyond the department and set the course for academic pathology in the US. The best-selling pathology textbook that he co-authored with Dr. Stanley Robbins (Robbin's Pathologic Basis of Disease) became the "bible" of pathology for medical schools around the world.

A tireless and legendary mentor to all his staff, trainees, friends and colleague, Dr. Cotran established a standard that everyone associated with department will forever try to model. With more than 15 past and current departmental chairs and deans being his former Brigham associates, his spirit and legacy has lasted.

2001-2011: The First Decade in the New Millenium

Dr. Michael Gimbrone, the first Ramzi S. Cotran Professor of Pathology, is a world-renowned researcher in vascular biology and orchestrated an active center for vascular biology program. Under Dr. Gimbrone's guidance, the clinical laboratories and blood bank services became part of a unified department. A new surgical pathology information system went live in 2004.

The Center for Molecular Oncologic Pathology (CMOP), a joint venture with Dana-Farber Cancer Center dedicated to translational research, was formed in 2007. A new Center for Advanced Molecular Diagnostics (CAMD) opened in May of 2008 in the Carl J. and Ruth Shapiro building and brought together cytogenetics and molecular diagnostics under one state-of-the-art laboratory.

Laboratory automation for the Clinical Chemistry was brought on-line in 2009, and hematology followed in 2011. The long-time home of BWH Pathology, the second and the third floors of the Amory building, underwent a multi-million dollar total renovation and re-design during Dr. Gimbrone's tenure. In 2012, the inauguration of the Ramzi Cotran conference room completed this multi-year process.


March 1, 2012 marked the arrival of Dr. Jeffrey A. Golden as the second Ramzi S. Cotran Professor of Pathology and the new chairman of the department. Dr. Golden brought with him a sense of vibrancy, transparency, optimism and new directions. Under Dr. Golden's leadership, the department continued to attract the best and the brightest to pursue excellence in clinical service, biomedical research and education and training. Emphases were placed on recruiting computational pathologists and high-profile researchers. In addition, extensive planning was done in collaboration with counterparts at the Massachusetts General Hospital, the other founding hospital in Partners Healthcare, to lay the groundwork for common information technologies and a future central laboratory.


Dr. Golden stepped down as chair in October of 2020 and Dr. Jon C. Aster became the interim Chair. Dr. Aster had been in the department since 1987, first as a trainee and then as a highly successful hematopathologist and researcher. He led the department through a difficult year and a half spanning the most challenging days of the COVID-19 pandemic while ensuring that the clinical operations and training programs maintained their high quality and that the research enterprise remained robust.

During this time, Partners Healthcare began a rapid transition to a more integrated enterprise known as Mass General Brigham. With pathology being one of the departments seeing the benefits of additional integration, Dr. Aster worked closely with Dr. David N. Louis, the chair of pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital, to develop plans for more clinical laboratory harmonization and for a merging of the two famous residency training programs.

On March 1, 2022, the pathology departments at Mass General Brigham changed their organizational structure to have a single chair and two deputy chairs, one at the Brigham and Women's Hospital and the other at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Louis became the chair of pathology at the Brigham, focusing on Mass General Brigham-wide initiatives, while Dr. Aster became the Deputy Chair, continuing to lead the Brigham department of pathology. Since then, Drs. Louis and Aster have worked to integrate the clinical labs across Mass General Brigham, maintain and enhance the remarkable clinical strengths of Brigham pathology, successfully launch the new combined Mass General Brigham training programs, and foster clinical and basic research in pathology at the Brigham.

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