William Summers

William Summers's picture
Lecturer in History; Professor of Therapeutic Radiology, Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, and History of Medicine and Science; Senior Project Director, HSHM
BASS 322
Fields of interest: 

HSHM: History of science & medicine; History of Chinese science & medicine



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 travelled 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 acupuncture.

At Yale, students enjoy Professor Summers’ college seminar, “Plagues and Peoples,” 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. His outgoing and accessible personality makes him a favorite among students.



  • 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

Research Projects

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.

History of the Manchurian Plague, 1910-1911

  • Beginning in October 1910, a major epidemic of pneumonic plague swept through Manchuria and by the spring of 1911 had killed between 45,000-60,000 people. The plague and its aftermath were to play an important role in the geopolitical events leading up to the Japanese takeover of Manchuria and complex causes of World War II. The concentrated force of this epidemic, its near 100 percent mortality rate, and its occurrence in a region of international competition and diplomatic struggle all contributed to the importance and interest in the Manchurian plague. The “Manchurian Question” was of immense interest in the United States: America had just enjoyed its first taste of successful international leadership upon Roosevelt’s brokering the peace treaty of 1905 that ended the Russo-Japanese war over territorial rights in Manchuria. Russia, on the other hand was intent on retaining what she could of her centuries-old foothold in east Asia. Japan, modernizing after the Meiji restoration in 1868, was experiencing international ambitions and expansionism in Korea and Manchuria, in its own version of “manifest destiny.” China, under the yoke of war reparations owed to both the Western Powers and to Japan as the result of the ill- fated Boxer Rebellion in 1895, was struggling with its first efforts at modernization while still governed by the decaying, and increasingly ineffective Qing dynasty. This project aims to elucidate the multiple uses which was made of the plague to exhibit the importance of epidemic disease in geopolitics.


  • SUMMERS, W.C. 2000. Typhoid (Historical). In: Lederberg, et al. Eds. Encyclopedia of Microbiology, Second Edition. New York: Academic Press. 4:755- 757.
  • SUMMERS, W.C. 2000. Virus Infection. In: Lederberg, et al. Eds. Encyclopedia of Microbiology, Second Edition. New York: Academic Press. 4:832- 836.
  • LEDERBERG, J., ALEXANDER, M., BLOOM, B., HOPWOOD, D. HULL, R., IGLWESKI, B.H., LASKIN, A.I., OLIVER, S.G., SCHAECHTER, M., AND SUMMERS, W.C., eds. 2000. Encyclopedia of Microbiology, Second Edition. San Diego: Academic Press. Four volumes
  • SUMMERS, W.C. 2000. History of Molecular Biology. In: Encyclopedia of Life Sciences. London: Macmillan (in press).
  • SUMMERS, W.C. 2000. Entries on: Trofim Lysenko and Lysenkoism; Luria-Delbrück Experiment; Salvador Luria; Max Delbrück; Alfred D. Hershey; Walter Gilbert; Félix d’Herelle. In: S. Brenner and J. Miller. Eds. Encyclopedia of Genetics. New York: Academic Press. in press.
  • SUMMERS, W.C. 2001. Bacteriophage Therapy. Ann. Rev. Microbiol. 55:437- 451
  • SUMMERS, W.C. 2001. Microbial drug resistance: A historical perspective. In: Wax, R. ed. Bacterial Resistance to Antimicrobials: Mechanisms, Genetics, Medical Practice, and Public Health, Marcel Dekker (in press).
  • SUMMERS, W.C. 2002. Molecular Biophysics and Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. In: Altman, S., Ed. Science at Yale. New Haven: Yale University. pp. 199-204.
  • SUMMERS, W.C. 2002. Manchurian Plague: medicine and politics, East and West. Harvard Asia-Pacific Review, 6(2):10- 13.
  • SUMMERS, W.C. 2003. 50 Years To Write the Book of Life: Now We Can Start to Read the Text, The Times Higher Educational Supplement, Feb. 7, 2003.
  • SUMMERS, W.C. 2003. From enzyme adaptation to gene regulation. Adv. Appl. Microbiol. 52:159-166.
  • SUMMERS, W.C. 2005. Bacteriophage Research: Early History. Chapter 2 in Bacteriophages: Biology and Applications, E. Kutter, A. Sulakvelidze, eds. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Fla. pp. 5-27.
  • SUMMERS, W.C. 2005. Microbiologia. In: Storia della Scienza, Volume 7. Instituto della Enciclopedia Italiana; Rome.
  • SUMMERS, W.C. 2005. Storia della biologia cellualare. In: Storia della Scienza, Volume 7. Instituto della Enciclopedia Italiana; Rome.
  • SUMMERS, W.C., ed. 2006. Reconceiving the Gene: Seymour Benzer’s Adventures in Phage Genetics. By F.L. Holmes. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • SUMMERS, W.C. 2006. Phage and the early development of molecular biology. In: Calendar, R., ed. The Bacteriophages. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
  • SUMMERS, W.C. 2006. Introduction to bacteriophages, history of phage research and phage therapy. In: Bacteriophages and Bacterial Pathogens, M. Waldor, D. Friedman, and S. Adhya, eds. ASM Press.
  • SUMMERS, W.C. 2007. Microbial Drug Resistance: A Historical Introduction. In: Lewis, K., Salyers, A.A., Taber, H.W., and Wax, R.G (eds) Bacterial Resistance to Antimicrobials: Mechanisms, Genetics, Medical Practice, and Public Health. Second Edition. New York: Marcel Dekker [in press]
  • SUMMERS, W.C. 2007. Chapter on “China” in An Introduction to the History of Science in Non- Western Traditions (Second Edition). Edited by Douglas Allchin and Robert DeKosky. Seattle: Hist. Sci. Soc. Publications [in preparation].
  • SUMMERS, W.C. 2007. Physics and Genes. In Sloan, Philip (ed.) The Three Man Paper. Univ of Chicago Press, [in preparation]
  • SCHAECHTER, M., SUMMERS, W.C., ET AL., eds. Encyclopedia of Microbiology, Third Edition. New York and London, Elsevier. Four Volumes. [in preparation]