The Man Behind the Name: Thomas Benton Cooley, M.D.


People often ask why the major form of thalassemia is known as Cooley’s anemia. Thalassemia major is widely referred to as Cooley’s anemia in reference to Dr. Thomas Benton Cooley, the renowned researcher who discovered the disorder.

Thomas Benton Cooley was an American physician specializing in pediatrics and hematology. He worked tirelessly to treat illnesses causing the high child and infant mortality rates found in the U.S. and globally in the early 20th century.

After completing medical school at the University of Michigan in 1895, he went on to complete thomas_benton_cooleyspecialized training in hygiene and contagious diseases at Boston City Hospital and in German clinics. Cooley then led the effort to treat individuals infected with rabies as the lead physician of the Pasteur Institute at the University of Michigan from 1903-1905.

Cooley made one of his biggest contributions to the dramatic reduction of infant deaths as the medical director of the Babies’ Milk Fund in Detroit. His increasing interest in and dedication to the improved health of children grew, leading him to serve as Assistant Chief of the Children’s Bureau of the American Red Cross in France during World War II. During his time in France, he led several projects including: the implementation of a school of public health for children, the establishment of a pediatric hospital, the development of a boarding school for children orphaned by war, and the foundation of a training school for visiting housekeepers who were tasked with visiting impoverished children and ensuring proper hygiene and diet. Cooley’s list of accomplishments in France is truly remarkable, inspiring the government of France to award him with the Legion of Honour in 1924 to recognize his impact in the lives of French children.

tbcooleyAfter returning from France in 1921, Cooley served as the head of pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan for the following two decades. He soon began an investigation on a form of childhood anemia, noting similarities in bone change among four children of Italian and Greek heritage. Cooley presented his findings to the American Pediatric Society in 1925, naming this disorder erythroblastic anemia, now known as Cooley’s anemia. His research is considered one of the most significant contributions to hematology and laid the groundwork for thalassemia research and treatment options in the following decades.

Cooley continued his dedication to children’s health and wellbeing by co-founding the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1930, and by serving as professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University College of Medicine for nearly a decade beginning in 1936. Cooley died in October 13, 1945.

The Cooley’s Anemia Foundation proudly bears the name of Dr. Thomas Benton Cooley in honor of his preeminent contributions to the livelihoods of individuals with thalassemia, and as a source of continued inspiration to the new crop of dedicated medical researchers leading the quest for a cure.