Dr. Gladys Dick and Scarlet Fever

An Amazing Chicago Woman



Dr. Gladys Henry Dick.





By Megan McKinney



Scarlet fever was a leading cause of death in children of the early 20th century, plaguing those in both North America and Europe, with mortality rates as high as 25 percent. The terrifyingly contagious disease also caused such complications as kidney disease, rheumatic fever and serious skin infections.

The tragedy of scarlet fever has figured prominently in recent Classic Chicago Dynasties reports, sadly infecting offspring of several of the city’s historic families. But that will come later. Of immediate interest is one of Chicago’s most compelling 20th century personalities.

Gladys Henry was born 1881—not in Chicago but in Pawnee City, Nebraska. Her father, a Civil War cavalry officer, was a banker and gentleman grain farmer, who raised carriage horses. It was a patrician upbringing on the family ranch near Lincoln, where Gladys became an expert equestrian. 

She graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1900, where, as a member of Pi Beta Phi, a sorority known for its extraordinarily lovely members, she was surely sought after by peers for personal qualities in addition to her exceptional intelligence and drive.

Jean S. Gottlieb bears this out in her segment about Gladys Henry Dick in Women Building Chicago 1790-1990. “Described by those who knew her as petite and a great beauty,” Gottlieb writes, “Dick was a woman of uncommon energy—disciplined, well organized and goal oriented.” 

Following Johns Hopkins Medical School—where she was one of its first women graduates—the newly minted Dr. Henry moved on to Berlin and was introduced to biomedical research.

When she reached Chicago in 1911, her first position was with Children’s Memorial Hospital, where she was confronted with a personal experience of scarlet fever—a powerful one—when she contracted the disease and learned its effects firsthand. Following her recovery, she took a research position at the University of Chicago, studying the origins of scarlet fever with her future husband, George F. Dick. After their 1914 marriage, 32-year-old Gladys served as a pathologist at Evanston Hospital—with scarlet fever continuing to remain in her life.

A few weeks ago in Classic Chicago, we discussed Samuel Insull Jr., who contracted the deadly disease at 11 and after three full months of being suspended in limbo—his condition not improving, yet not worsening—Sam’s fever suddenly shot up and his heart stopped beating. He was clinically dead. One of the courageous nurses caring for him grabbed the boy, pounding him until his heart began again to beat. His fever declined. And he would live. The illness was that capricious.

Even Thomas Edison, colleague of Sam’s father, was a childhood victim, worsening hearing loss he had suffered since birth and making normal education so problematic that the brilliant inventor of the future was withdrawn for home schooling.

However, the most relevant to the Gladys Dick story is the case of little Jackie McCormick.


The Harold McCormicks with John Rockefeller “Jack” McCormick, left, and Harold Fowler McCormick Jr., known as Fowler.


In early 1901, Harold and Edith Rockefeller McCormick took their two sons, John Rockefeller McCormick and Harold Fowler McCormick Jr., to visit their grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, at his estate in Pocantico Hills, New York. The children were found to be in the first stages of scarlet fever and immediately isolated. To keep the infection from spreading to others in the house, Grandfather Rockefeller lost no time in ordering an enclosed staircase constructed against an outer wall of the mansion for use of the intrepid trained nurses caring for the boys. When John D. Rockefeller ordered something, it appeared very quickly and this did.


Kykuit, John D. Rockefeller’s mansion at Pocantico Hills.


After two weeks, a crisis, similar to that experienced by young Sam Insull, occurred; however, little Jackie—not quite four years old—suddenly and tragically died.

He had been an enchanting child, a bright little spirit who captivated all who knew him; he was especially adored by his Rockefeller grandfather, for whom he had been named and whose favorite he was. Happily, his younger brother, Fowler, survived.

After the loss of their beloved son to the disease, the McCormicks established the John R. McCormick Memorial Institute for Infectious Diseases in Chicago, for which they engaged Dr. George Dick. In 1914, Dr. Gladys Dick joined her new spouse and would remain at the Institute—rededicated in 1943 as the Hektoen Institute for Medical Research—until her 1953 retirement.

Because she was a woman, Gladys was barred from entering the Army Medical Corps, which her husband joined during World War I; she then attempted to become an ambulance driver, but she was excluded from a position to which such non-medical American bon vivants as Ernest Hemingway and Chips Channon were welcomed without question.

At the Institute, where she was not subjected to gender discrimination, Gladys, with her husband, accomplished the work that made the words “Dick test” an American household phrase throughout much of the 20th century. 


Dr. George F. Dick.


In October, 1923, the Drs. Dick successfully isolated “the causative agent of scarlet fever,” and were on their way to developing both the famous skin test—which determined a person’s susceptibility to the disease—and the vaccine that would be universally used to battle it.

In 1925, the Dicks were nominated for the Nobel Prize, which they were not awarded despite the sponsorship of 24 distinguished colleagues; there was no prize for medicine that year. However, they did win a Charles Mickle Fellowship Award from the University of Toronto in 1926 and the Cameron Prize of the University of Edinburgh in 1933.  

Although the Dicks’ vaccine was superseded by penicillin in the 1940s, countless lives were saved in the two preceding decades by both the serum and the skin analysis.

Another area in which Dr. Gladys Dick had impact was adoption, after becoming deeply involved in one of the nation’s most respected adoption institutions, The Cradle in Evanston. In addition to being a close friend of Cradle Society founder Florence Dahl Walrath and serving many years on The Cradle Board, Dr. Dick became a hands-on participant.

In 1927, when 80 Cradle babies became infected with a fatal intestinal epidemic and 27 died, she devised the Dick Aseptic Nursery Technique, which provided “strict sterilization and aseptic procedures” to prevent cross infection among infants. In investigating, she had found a source of infection was the babies’ powdered milk. Sterilizing the infant food stopped the infections.

Dr. Dick’s work in this area convinced the American Medical Association to establish a council on foods, prompting manufacturers to make boilable powdered milk. In 1929, The Cradle also introduced aseptic nursery techniques, developed by Dr. Dick, to keep hand-borne infection from spreading between nurses and babies. However, there was another more personal association with adoption.

At the age of 49, this amazing lady of so many achievements must have felt a bit like the stricken woman in the famous Roy Lichtenstein Pop Art cartoon.


If so, she was in the perfect spot to correct the situation by adopting two perfect babies, a two-month-old boy, Roger, and, a few months later, a three-month-old girl, Rowena. She simply added a governess to her domestic staff and kept working at such projects as research toward the conquering of polio, which was then as frightening as scarlet fever had been earlier.

Gladys and George Dick’s adoptive son, Roger Henry Dick, died in January 2015. However, Rowena Dick Kelley is a Chicago interior designer who, throughout her adult life, has been a vibrant and active participant in the social, cultural and charitable life of the city.

Dr. Gladys Dick was 72 in 1953 when she was diagnosed with cerebral arteriosclerosis and retired to Palo Alto with her husband. Ten years later, she died there of a stroke. Dr. George Dick followed her in four years.


Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl