Harold Wolff

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Harold George Wolff (New York, 26 May 1898 - Washington D.C., 21 February 1962) was an American doctor, neurologist and scientist. He is generally considered the father of modern headache research, and a pioneer in the study of psychosomatic illness.

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe's 3.9 million square miles. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the most populous city is New York City. Most of the country is located contiguously in North America between Canada and Mexico.

Physician professional who practices medicine

A physician, medical practitioner, medical doctor, or simply doctor, is a professional who practises medicine, which is concerned with promoting, maintaining, or restoring health through the study, diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of disease, injury, and other physical and mental impairments. Physicians may focus their practice on certain disease categories, types of patients, and methods of treatment—known as specialities—or they may assume responsibility for the provision of continuing and comprehensive medical care to individuals, families, and communities—known as general practice. Medical practice properly requires both a detailed knowledge of the academic disciplines, such as anatomy and physiology, underlying diseases and their treatment—the science of medicine—and also a decent competence in its applied practice—the art or craft of medicine.

Scientist Person that studies a science

A scientist is someone who conducts scientific research to advance knowledge in an area of interest.



Harold Wolff was born on May 26, 1898 in New York City, the only child of Louis Wolff, a catholic illustrator, and Emma Recknagel Wolff, Lutheran. He was educated at City College, from which he graduated in 1918, aged 20. After graduating, he worked in a government-supported fishery trying to improve drying fish. He considered becoming a priest before deciding to take up medicine at Harvard Medical School, where he received his M.D. in 1923. [1]

City College of New York senior college of the City University of New York (CUNY) in New York City

The City College of the City University of New York is a public senior college of the City University of New York (CUNY) in New York City. Founded in 1847, City College was the first free public institution of higher education in the United States. It is the oldest of CUNY's 24 institutions of higher learning, and is considered its flagship college.

Harvard Medical School Medical school in Boston, MA

Harvard Medical School (HMS) is the graduate medical school of Harvard University. It is located in the Longwood Medical Area of the Mission Hill neighborhood in Boston, Massachusetts. Founded in 1782, HMS is one of the oldest medical schools in the United States and is ranked first among research-oriented medical schools in the 2020 rankings of U.S. News and World Report. Unlike most other leading medical schools, HMS does not operate in conjunction with a single hospital but is directly affiliated with several teaching hospitals in the Boston area. The HMS faculty has approximately 2,900 full- and part-time voting faculty members consisting of assistant, associate, and full professors, and over 5,000 full- and part-time, non-voting instructors. The majority of the faculty receive their appointments through an affiliated teaching hospital.

Doctor of Medicine is a medical degree, the meaning of which varies between different jurisdictions. In the United States, Canada and some other countries, the MD denotes a professional graduate degree awarded upon graduation from medical school. In the United States, this generally arose because many in 18th century medical profession trained in Scotland, which used the M.D. degree nomenclature. In England, however, Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery was used and eventually in the 19th century became the standard in Scotland too. Thus, in the United Kingdom, Ireland and other countries, the MD is a research doctorate, higher doctorate, honorary doctorate or applied clinical degree restricted to those who already hold a professional degree in medicine; in those countries, the equivalent professional to the North American and some others use of M.D is still typically titled Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS).

After medical training at New York’s Roosevelt Hospital and Bellevue Hospital Center, he started to study neuropathology with Harry Forbes and Stanley Cobb.

St. Lukes–Roosevelt Hospital Center Hospital in NY, United States

Mount Sinai St. Luke's and Mount Sinai West, the latter formerly known as Mount Sinai Roosevelt, are two hospitals affiliated with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Mount Sinai Health System. The combined hospitals are a 1,000-bed, full-service community and tertiary care hospitals serving New York City’s Midtown West, Upper West Side and parts of Harlem.

Neuropathology study of disease of nervous system tissue,

Neuropathology is the study of disease of nervous system tissue, usually in the form of either small surgical biopsies or whole-body autopsies. Neuropathologists usually work in a department of anatomic pathology, but work closely with the clinical disciplines of neurology, and neurosurgery, which often depend on neuropathology for a diagnosis. Neuropathology also relates to forensic pathology because brain disease or brain injury can be related to cause of death. Neuropathology should not be confused with neuropathy, which refers to disorders of the nerves themselves.

Stanley Cobb American psychiatrist

Stanley Cobb was a neurologist and could be considered "the founder of biological psychiatry in the United States".

In 1928 he travelled abroad, spending a year in Graz, in Austria, with Otto Loewi, and then with Ivan Pavlov in Leningrad, in Russia.

Graz Place in Styria, Austria

Graz is the capital of the Austrian province Styria and the second-largest city in Austria after Vienna. On 1 January 2019, it had a population of 328,276. In 2015, the population of the Graz larger urban zone who had principal residence status stood at 633,168. Graz has a long tradition as seat of universities: its six universities have almost 60,000 students. Its historic centre is one of the best-preserved city centres in Central Europe.

Austria Federal republic in Central Europe

Austria, officially the Republic of Austria, is a country in Central Europe comprising nine federated states. Its capital, largest city and one of nine states is Vienna. Austria has an area of 83,879 km2 (32,386 sq mi), a population of nearly nine million people and a nominal GDP of $477 billion. It is bordered by the Czech Republic and Germany to the north, Hungary and Slovakia to the east, Slovenia and Italy to the south, and Switzerland and Liechtenstein to the west. The terrain is landlocked and highly mountainous, lying within the Alps; only 32% of the country is below 500 m (1,640 ft), and its highest point is 3,798 m (12,461 ft). The majority of the population speaks local Bavarian dialects as their native language, and German in its standard form is the country's official language. Other regional languages are Hungarian, Burgenland Croatian, and Slovene.

Otto Loewi German pharmacologist

Otto Loewi was a German-born pharmacologist and psychobiologist who discovered the role of acetylcholine as an endogenous neurotransmitter. For his discovery he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1936, which he shared with Sir Henry Dale, who was a lifelong friend who helped to inspire the neurotransmitter experiment. Loewi met Dale in 1902 when spending some months in Ernest Starling's laboratory at University College, London.

Returning to America, he moved to the Psychiatry ward at Phipps Clinic of Johns Hopkins University, working with Adolf Meyer (psychiatrist). [2]

Psychiatry is the medical specialty devoted to diagnosing, preventing, and treating mental disorders. These include various maladaptations related to mood, behavior, cognition, and perceptions. See glossary of psychiatry.

Johns Hopkins University Private research university in Baltimore, Maryland

Johns Hopkins University is a private research university in Baltimore, Maryland. Founded in 1876, the university was named for its first benefactor, the American entrepreneur, abolitionist, and philanthropist Johns Hopkins. His $7 million bequest —of which half financed the establishment of Johns Hopkins Hospital—was the largest philanthropic gift in the history of the United States up to that time. Daniel Coit Gilman, who was inaugurated as the institution's first president on February 22, 1876, led the university to revolutionize higher education in the U.S. by integrating teaching and research. Adopting the concept of a graduate school from Germany's ancient Heidelberg University, Johns Hopkins University is considered the first research university in the United States. Over the course of several decades, the university has led all U.S. universities in annual research and development expenditures. In fiscal year 2016, Johns Hopkins spent nearly $2.5 billion on research.

Adolf Meyer (psychiatrist) Swiss-American psychiatrist

Adolf Meyer was a psychiatrist who rose to prominence as the first psychiatrist-in-chief of the Johns Hopkins Hospital (1910-1941). He was president of the American Psychiatric Association in 1927–28 and was one of the most influential figures in psychiatry in the first half of the twentieth century. His focus on collecting detailed case histories on patients was one of the most prominent of his contributions. He oversaw the building and development of the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital, opened in April 1913, making sure it was suitable for scientific research, training and treatment. Meyer's work at the Phipps Clinic is arguably the most significant aspect of his career.

In 1932 he finally decided to come back in Boston and became the head of Neurology ward, supervised by Eugene Dubois. He later became also Professor of Medicine and Chief Neurologist at New York Hospital – Cornell Medical Center (NYH-CMC). [3]

Neurology Medical specialty dealing with disorders of the nervous system

Neurology is a branch of medicine dealing with disorders of the nervous system. Neurology deals with the diagnosis and treatment of all categories of conditions and disease involving the central and peripheral nervous systems, including their coverings, blood vessels, and all effector tissue, such as muscle. Neurological practice relies heavily on the field of neuroscience, the scientific study of the nervous system.

In 1934 Dr. Wolff married the well-known painter Isabel Bishop, and had a son, Remsen N. Wolff. In 1958 he was named the first occupant of the “Anne Parrish Titzel Chair” in Medicine at Cornell University.

During his last years he devoted much of his energy to the work of the “Academy of Religion and Mental Health” and, after a lifelong agnosticism, became a member of “Christ Church (Episcopal)” in Riverdale, New York.

Harold Wolff died on February 21, 1962 in Washington D.C., of a cerebral vascular disease. [4]


Harold Wolff is considered one of the most outstanding and brilliant neurologists and scientists, who had a main role in the development of medical research. He was characterized by an incredible attitude of an inquiring mind, rigorous self-discipline and respect for evidence; he was defined a “combination of administrator and investigator”. [5] He was appreciated for his energy, his influence on those who worked with him, his passion and his resolution.

Wolff’s pupils described him as a superb clinician, a wise man who exercised vigorously and competitively, sometimes highly obsessive. He used to taught by example, in fact his motto was: "No day without its experiment". [6] In Wolff’s opinion there was always a stimulus to do more, to do better and an incentive to achieve the purpose in the clearest way. He had also a boundless capacity for kindness and understanding [ citation needed ], and an intense devotion to art, painting, classical music, literature and philosophy.

Field of research

Harold Wolff’s first major contribution was the elucidation of the mechanism of migraine and other headaches of vascular origin. He was the first neurologist that supported the hypothesis that the aura arises from a vasoconstriction and the headache from a vasodilatation. [7] In fact, vasodilators (amylnitrite, carbon dioxide) abolished the aura temporarily or persistently, and vasoconstrictors (norepinephrine, ergotamine tartrate, caffeine) induced the aura. [8]

Dr. Wolff was also interested in understanding the mindbody relationship, and established a separate category of illness to be defined as psychosomatic. There is a connection between nervous system and bodily diseases like peptic ulcer, ulcerative colitis, hypertension, etc. [9]

However, Wolff's work on migraines also reveals sexism. In his discussion of patients, he tended to focus on his male patients, who he described as being ambitious, efficient, perfectionistic, and successful. He thought were working too hard; they should relax more and get more exercise. In contrast, women patients were described as inadequate, unsatisfied, and frigid. In women, unlike men, migraines were pathologized. [10]

Dr. Wolff also headed the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology, which received funding from the CIA to investigate the manipulation of human behavior. [11] Dr. Wolff was a key participant in the CIA's MKULTRA program, conducting research to discover effective interrogation techniques. He collaborated with the CIA to collect information on a wide variety of torture methods, and stated the intention that his research program would:

...assemble, collate, analyze and assimilate this information and will then undertake experimental investigations designed to develop new techniques of offensive/defensive intelligence use ... Potentially useful secret drugs (and various brain damaging procedures) will be similarly tested in order to ascertain the fundamental effect upon human brain function and upon the subject's mood ... Where any of the studies involve potential harm of the subject, we expect the Agency to make available suitable subjects and a proper place for the performance of the necessary experiments.

Dr. Harold Wolff, Cornell University Medical School [12]




  1. J.N. Blau, "H.G. Wolff: the man and his migraine", p.215
  2. Medical Center Archivies, "The H.Wolff M.D. Papers", p.2
  3. S. Wolf, "In Memoriam", p.222
  4. Medical Center Archivies, "The H.Wolff M.D. Papers", p.2
  5. L. Hausman, "Tribute to H.G Wolff", p.826
  6. J.N. Blau, "H.G. Wolff: the man and his migraine", p.216
  7. J.N. Blau, "H.G. Wolff: the man and his migraine", p.217
  8. J.N. Blau, "H.G. Wolff: the man and his migraine", p.218
  9. S. Wolf, "In Memoriam", p.224
  10. "Sex(ism), Drugs, and Migraines: Distillations Podcast and Transcript, Episode 237". Distillations. Science History Institute. January 15, 2019. Retrieved August 28, 2019.
  11. Horrock, Nicholas M. (August 2, 1977). "PRIVATE INSTITUTIONS USED IN CAL EFFORT TO CONTROL BEHAVIOR". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 August 2019.
  12. Otterman, 2007: pp. 24-25

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