Isaac Arthur Abt, pediatrician and Northwestern University Medical School professor, was born in Wilmington, Illinois on December 18, 1867. He began his practice in internal medicine but gravitated to pediatrics, with a particular intererst in nutrion, and became one of the earliest specialists in the field. In 1897 Abt became Professor of Diseases of Children at Northwestern University's Woman's Medical College, a position he held until 1901, when he left for Rush University. Returning to NU in 1909, Abt became Professor of Pediatrics and Chairman of the Department. He remained at Northwestern until his retirement in 1939.
Abt was the son of Levi Abt and Henrietta Hart Abt who also had three other sons including Isaac's twin, Jacob, and three daughters (one died at an early age from typhoid). Levi Abt had, at the age of 19, emigrated from Germany after the unrest of 1848. He engaged in various commercial activities in Illinois and finally settled in Wheeling where he owned a general store and served as postmaster. Here, about 1865, Levi married Henrietta Hart who had also emigrated from Germany shortly after 1848. Two sons, Solomon and Herman, were born before the family moved to Wilmington. In 1875 the Abts moved to Chicago, and Levi joined his brothers-in-law in establishing the firm of Hart, Abt, and Marx, manufacturers of men's clothing. The Abts' daughters Carrie and Hattie were born in Chicago.
Isaac attended public schools in Chicago and graduated from West Division High School. About this time the brothers-in-law decided to separate and two new firms were established: L. Abt and Sons and Hart, Schaffner, and Marx.
During his after-school hours Isaac had worked at Matt Borland's drug store on the west side. He quickly became involved in making herbal tinctures, Seidlitz powders, cathartic pills, and other popular items, and this experience combined with his interest in the medical activities of his father's mother and his Aunt Rosie pointed young Isaac toward a medical career. After a year at the University of Chicago preparatory school he entered the 3-year pre-medical program at Johns Hopkins University in the Fall of 1886. While in Baltimore he boarded with a Mrs. Warfield, an aunt of the Duchess of Windsor.
At Johns Hopkins Isaac was greatly influenced by the outstanding pathologist, William Henry Welch. Welch's desire for accuracy and the understanding of causes was evident throughout Abt's long career. Among Abt's classmates at Johns Hopkins were Fielding Garrison, Ross Harrison, Lessing Rosenthal, and Albert Loeb. Abt continued his medical education during his vacations from Hopkins working with Edmund Andrews, Sr., Moses Gunn, and Charles Parks. In the fall of 1889 he entered the Chicago Medical College's two-year course. During medical school he worked at a variety of jobs in the College's dispensary, primarily as drug clerk. Abt graduated in 1891 in a class that included Joseph Bolivar Delee, Arthur Edwards, and Robert Preble. Abt took his internship at Michael Reese Hospital, 1891-1892. Then Abt took the usual “grand tour” of Europe for his postgraduate training, leaving in the fall of 1892 and returning in January 1894. He studied under Widerhofer at Vienna and also spent time in Berlin and London.
Abt's first office in Chicago was located near 35th St. and Indiana Ave. He began his practice in internal medicine but soon started to devote more and more time to pediatrics, becoming one of the earliest specialists in the field. Abt realized the importance of teaching for the clinician and maintained an active academic affiliation throughout his career. From 1894 to 1897 he was assistant in pediatrics and instructor in physiology, histology, and physiology of the nervous system at the Chicago Medical College (Northwestern University Medical School). He also served for a time as a district county physician and medical inspector for the Chicago Health Department. In 1896 Cook County Hospital for the first time offered competitive Civil Service examinations for appointments to its staff. Abt studied for a solid week in a hotel room and passed the examinations with the highest grade. As a result he was appointed the first attending physician in pediatrics at the Hospital.
In 1897 Abt became Professor of Diseases of Children at Northwestern University's Woman's Medical College, a position he held until 1901 when Francis X. Walls was named to succeed Marcus P. Hatfield as Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics of the Northwestern University Medical School. Abt then moved to Rush Medical College as Associate Professor of Children's Diseases. In 1909 he was invited back to Northwestern as Professor of Pediatrics and Chairman of the Department. He remained at Northwestern until his retirement in 1939. He was accorded emeritus status in 1940.
Abt was especially interested in the quality of nutrition and hospital facilities for children. He was a founder and the first president of the Chicago Milk Commission (which later developed into the Infant Welfare Society). Abt also served as the first president of the Children's Hospital Society of Chicago. His most important work in support of pediatric hospital facilities began in 1910 when Edward Morris, of the meat-packing family, called on him with a proposal for a children's hospital. This hospital, to be named after Edward's mother, Sarah, was to be the finest in Chicago.
Late in the summer of 1910 Abt and his wife sailed to Europe to visit the newest and best children's hospitals. The plans Abt developed were drawn up by Schmidt, Gardner, and Erickson and the Sarah Morris Children's Hospital (in conjunction with Michael Reese Hospital) was dedicated in 1912. The Sarah Morris Hospital was acknowledged to be one of the finest in the country, comparable to the Harriet Lane Home at Johns Hopkins, which had been planned by Clemens von Pirquet somewhat earlier.
While medical practice and teaching absorbed much of his time, Isaac Abt also wrote extensively for both scientific and lay audiences. Many of his articles dealt with nutrition. He also wrote on such subjects as floating kidneys, the relationship between speech and intelligence, the classification of gastrointestinal diseases, and the status of the kindergarten. Abt wrote chapters for a number of books (including three for Brenneman's System of Pediatrics). Abt's comprehensive knowledge of the rapidly expanding literature of pediatrics was in good part the result of his service as Editor of the Year Book of Pediatrics from 1902 to 1940. He was one of the founders of the American Journal of the Diseases of Children. Books by Abt included The Baby's Food, published in 1917, and his autobiographical Baby Doctor, published in 1944. His major work, the 8-volume System of Pediatrics, was published in 1923-1926. This became a classic in its field. In the midst of his scientific and popular writings Abt found time to produce a variety of papers on historical topics (medical encyclopedists, biographical sketches, and the development of pediatrics in a number of cities and regions).
Abt was in great demand as a speaker before both scientific and lay groups. Many of his addresses were later printed although some exist only in note or manuscript form. Abt had an inventive and pioneering mind. With Edward Lasker he developed an electric breast pump that became highly successful. He was the first physician in Chicago to administer diphtheria antitoxin, and he was the first American pediatrician to use protein milk in the treatment of diarrhea. Abt pioneered in the early work on incubators for premature infants.
Abt was an active and productive member of numerous organizations. He was Chairman of the American Medical Association's Section on Pediatrics in 1911, and served as the Section's representative in the House of Delegates from 1918 to 1935. In 1925 he presented an informative and detailed report before the House on the methods of sale and promotion of infant foods that has served as a standard ever since. He also was a member of a joint committee of the AMA and the National Education Association. He was Chairman of the Committee on Medical Care for Children at President Hoover's White House Conference in 1930.
Abt was President of the American Association for Teachers of the Diseases of Children in 1922, American Pediatric Society in 1926, Chicago Medical Society in 1927, and the Institute of Medicine of Chicago in 1933. He was a founder and first president (1931) of the American Academy of Pediatrics. In addition, Abt received many honors. The one that affected him most deeply was bestowed in 1928 during a trip to Europe. This was an honorary membership in the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Kinderheilkunde. Abt had been made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 1927. The same year he was elected an honorary member of Alpha Omega Alpha, the medical honorary society. In 1931 Northwestern University awarded him a Doctor of Science degree. The American Pediatric Society presented him with a loving cup, and the American Academy of Pediatrics also gave him an award.
In 1897 Abt married Lina Rosenberg, a graduate nurse at Michael Reese Hospital. The elder of their two sons, Arthur Frederick, born on September 7, 1898, also became a pediatrician. The younger son, Lawrence Edward, was born two years later. Isaac Arthur Abt died in Chicago on November 22, 1955, exactly 33 years after the death of his father.
Isaac Arthur Abt became one of the most prominent pediatricians in the United States and for many years enjoyed an international reputation as well. The standards he set in his clinical practice became a model for the field that he did so much to develop and improve. His publications informed and encouraged both the lay public and his scientific colleagues. His teaching raised the quality of pediatric practice and profoundly affected his many students and residents, among whom were Clifford Grulee, Julius Hess, and Joseph Brenneman.