In 2012, the Journal of Clinical Microbiology began publishing quarterly biographical features of pioneers and innovators in clinical microbiology. Of the more than 15 microbiologists who have been profiled over the years, the career summary of Thomas F. Smith, Ph.D., Emeritus Staff, is unique in that it represents the journal’s first biographical feature primarily focused on a diagnostic virologist.
The write-up of Dr. Smith is profound as he is (as the editor states), a “leading clinical virologist of the past five decades.” Of note, Dr. Smith was a U.S. Army commissioned lieutenant in the Medical Service Corps and received a U.S. Army Commendation Medal in 1965. He began a postdoctoral fellowship at Mayo Clinic in 1969. In 1971, he joined the Mayo Clinic Division of Clinical Microbiology faculty with the goal to increase the volume of specimens processed by the virology service. “When there was a bacterium that was ignored, it was funneled into my lab,” Dr. Smith said.
Dr. Smith soon made a significant discovery when testing for Chlamydia trachomatis. He found that in vitro detection of the bacteria could be significantly enhanced by using McCoy’s cells cultivated on coverslips placed in 1-dram glass shell vials so that the testing could be adaptable to the clinical laboratory.
Later, in 1983, a second major professional achievement in Smith’s career involved extrapolation of shell vial technology to laboratory diagnosis of viral infections. Many of the techniques learned from culture and detection of Chlamydia were applied to the detection of the human cytomegalovirus and other viruses using the shell vial technique. “Transformative and revolutionary” is how one Yale colleague described Dr. Smith’s discovery.
Heavily data-driven, in the 1990s, Dr. Smith began converting approximately 95% of the assays offered by his clinical virology laboratory to molecular methods. Today, Mayo’s Division of Clinical Microbiology includes a staff of more than 250, many of whom continue to perform the assays developed by Dr. Smith.
A colleague from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center said of Dr. Smith and his passion and vision for microbiology, “If no Tom Smith, no modern clinical virology laboratory.”
Read the full JCM biography of Dr. Thomas F. Smith.