William Summers, MD, PhD

William Summers's picture
Professor (Retired) of Therapeutic Radiology, Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry, and History of Medicine; Lecturer in History
450 Saint Ronan St. New Haven, CT 06511
Phone number: 
Research Areas: 
History of modern biology; geopolitics of disease; Asian science and medicine

History of biology, geopolitics of disease; history of science and medicine in Asia.

Professor William C. Summers’ interests range from molecular biology to Chinese culture and history. A well-published researcher in virology and in the history of science and medicine, Professor Summers earned both his M.D. and his Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Wisconsin in 1967. He joined the Yale faculty in 1968. Professor Summers has held fellowships and visiting faculty positions at major research universities in the United States, Sweden, Great Britain, and China; he serves on numerous panels and editorial boards.

He first traveled to the People’s Republic of China in 1980 with the Yale delegation that re-established the medical exchange program with the Hunan Medical College. Professor Summers has done extensive research on Chinese public health and medicine, publishing articles on historic parallels between Chinese and Western medical development, Chinese government medical policy, and the Great Manchurian Plague.

At Yale, students enjoy Professor Summers’ Freshman seminar, “Epidemics in Global Perspective,” which deals with historical issues of policy and epidemic disease. He also teaches a seminar on the history of Chinese science in which he deals with Chinese concepts of the natural world, Asian technological development, and East-West scientific interactions, as well as courses on the history of molecular biology, and the history of physical sciences since Newton.


History of Molecular Biology

The early history of molecular biology is embedded in the work of physicists who applied concepts from physics to biological systems. One major aspect of this early work was the development of the target theory. The detailed history of the origins of the target theory has been reconstructed from the published literature and from archival material. The next phase of this project will examine the formation and influences of the American Phage Group. This material will form some of the background against which the larger history of molecular biology will be placed.

Geopolitics of disease in the ASEAN context

The nations in South East Asia, while linked in the geopolitical association ASEAN, are a heterogeneous collection of peoples differing in history, language, culture, religion, and politics, yet they face common challenges in dealing with transnational problems such as epidemic diseases and other public health matters.  In an examination of these challenges since the 1950s I am testing the analyses and frameworks I developed in my earlier studies of the geopolitics of the Great Manchurian Plague of 1910-11.  The ASEAN examples include such epidemics as HIV, Influenza, SARS, Dengue, Polio, TB and Nipahvirus outbreaks.

Selected Publications:

Schaechter, M., Summers, W.C., et al., eds. 2009. Encyclopedia of Microbiology, Third Edition. New York and London, Elsevier. Six Volumes.

Summers, W.C. and Lim, S.H. 2009. Epidemiological Concepts with HistoricalExamples.  In: Schaechter, M. et al. Eds. Encyclopedia of Microbiology, Third Edition. New York: Elsevier.

Summers, W.C. 2011. In the beginning. Bacteriophage 1:50-51.

Summers, W.C. 2011. Physics and Genes: Einstein to Delbrück. In Philip Sloan and Brian Fogel, (eds.) Creating a Physical Biology: The Three-Man Paper and Early Molecular Biology. Univ of Chicago Press.

Summers, W.C. 2012, The Strange History of Phage Therapy. Bacteriophage 2:130-133.

Summers, W.C. 2012. The Great Manchurian Plague, 1910-1911: Geopolitics of an Epidemic Disease. Yale University Press.

Summers, W.C. 2013. Felix d’Herelle. In Harman, Oren, and Dietrich, Michael (eds.) Biology Outside the Box: Boundaries and Innovations in the Life Sciences, Univ of Chicago Press.

Summers, W.C. 2014. My Life in Science. Bacteriophage 4: e26691-1-3

Summers, W.C. 2014. Inventing Viruses. Ann. Rev. Virology 1: 25-36.

Summers, W.C. 2015. Historical Roots, in Viral Pathogenesis: from Essentials to Systems Biology, 3rd ed. by Neal Nathanson and Michael Katze, Elsevier. (in press). 

Summers, W.C. 2015 Plasmids: History of a Concept, in Reticulate Evolution: Symbiogenesis and Lateral Gene Transfer, ed. Nathalie Gontier, Springer (in press).


BS (1961), MS (1963), M.D., Ph.D. (1967) (University of Wisconsin, Madison)

MAH (Yale)

NSF Postdoctoral Fellow, MIT, 1967-1968

Joined Yale faculty 1968