H. Houston Merritt (1902-1979)

Chairman, 1948-1967

H. Houston Merritt (1902-1979) was one of the greatest academic neurologists of the 20th Century. Neurology at the Neurological Institute of New York, Columbia University Medical Center achieved international recognition under his leadership, and 35 of his residents became chairmen of departments around the country.

Houston Merritt was born and raised in North Carolina, but received his bachelor's degree from Vanderbilt University, and his MD degree from Johns Hopkins University. He trained in medicine at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and in neurology and neuropathology at the Boston City Hospital and the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt in Munich, Germany. His long and distinguished academic career was spent at only two institutions: Harvard and Columbia.

Merritt established himself on the Harvard Neurological Unit at Boston City Hospital, one of the few centers of the time that was actively involved in clinical investigation. His studies there of cerebrospinal fluid and of neurosyphilis, subsequently published as monographs, are classics. In collaboration with Tracy Putnam, who was later Director of the Neurological Institute of New York, Merritt discovered Dilantin, still a first line drug for the treatment of epilepsy. Even more importantly, Merritt and Putnam established a scientific basis for identifying potentially useful antiepileptic drugs and showed that an effective anticonvulsant need not be a sedative.

In 1944, Merritt was recruited to New York. His first four years were at Montefiore Hospital where he was Chief of Columbia University's Division of Neuropsychiatry. In 1948, Columbia appointed Merritt Chairman of the Department of Neurology and Director of the Neurological Service at the Neurological Institute of Presbyterian Hospital. He held these two posts for 20 years, establishing NI as one of the great neurological centers of the world and the most sought-after training program in the United States. Merritt trained more academic neurologists and chairman of neurology departments than any other clinical chief in the country. In 1958, Merritt became Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Vice-President of Medical Affairs at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, a post he held until his retirement in 1970 at the age of 68.

From the earliest days in Boston, Merritt was renowned for his clinical expertise and pithy teaching; his uncanny diagnostic accuracy at CPCs was legendary. His writing in more than 200 papers and many books was always clear and lucid. His Textbook of Neurology, now in its 10th edition under the editorship of Dr. Lewis P. Rowland, is a standard reference work in the field. As an accomplished editor, he served on the Editorial Board of the Archives of Neurology for six years and was its Editor-in-Chief for nine more.

Despite his many clinical and administrative commitments, Merritt found time to serve in important government, foundation, and professional posts. He was one of the first members of the National Advisory Council of the NINDS/NIH, and he was the neurological consultant to the Army, the Navy, and the Veterans' Administration. He was on the scientific advisory boards of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the United Cerebral Palsy Association, the Muscular Dystrophy Association of America, the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation, and the Epilepsy Foundation of America. He was President of the American Neurological Association in 1957 and also served as President of the Association for Research in Nervous and Mental Disease and as Chairman of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. He held honorary degrees from Harvard and Columbia and honorary memberships in neurological societies around the world.

His unassailable international reputation not withstanding, Merritt remained a gentle, unassuming, and somewhat reserved man with a wonderful sense of humor and the ability to tell a story appropriate to any situation. His marriage to Mabel Carmichael resulted in a long, happy, and devoted partnership. By any measure, Houston Merritt was a giant in our field and contributed substantially to the emergence of neurology as a separate academic discipline distinct from psychiatry, neurosurgery, and internal medicine. His death on January 9, 1979 from complications related to cerebrovascular disease and normal pressure hydrocephalus marked the end of an era.