George Huntington, the physician for whom Huntington’s Chorea or Huntington’s Disease is named, was born April 9, 1850 in East Hampton, N.Y., the son of George Lee Huntington (1811-1881) and Mary Hoogland Huntington. Both Huntington’s father and his grandfather, Abel (1778-1858), were physicians in East Hampton.
Huntington attended the Clinton Academy in his native town and was enrolled at the College of Physicians and Surgeons (P&S) of Columbia College, 1868-1871. He finished his medical studies at P&S in February 1871 with an inaugural thesis on opium. Because he was not yet 21 at the time, Huntington’s diploma was not actually awarded until June 1872, though he was listed in the College records as a member of the Class of 1871. Shortly thereafter he settled in Pomeroy, Ohio, where he began practicing medicine.
While in Ohio, Huntington presented a paper entitled “On Chorea” to the Meigs and Mason Academy of Medicine in Middleport on February 15, 1872. In it, Huntington discussed the more common form of chorea, often found in children. He then went on to describe the “form of the disease which exists, so far as I know, almost exclusively on the east end of Long Island…The hereditary chorea, as I shall call it, is confined to certain and fortunately a few families, and has been transmitted to them, an heirloom from generations away back in the dim past.”
Based on his study of the casebooks of his father and grandfather and on his own observations, Huntington deduced the distinguishing characteristics of this rarer form of chorea: “1. Its hereditary nature. 2. A tendency to insanity and suicide. 3. Its manifesting itself as a grave disease only in adult life.” Huntington pointed out that if the disease skipped a generation then it would never again manifest itself in the descendents of the original sufferer: “Unstable and whimsical as the disease may be in other respects, in this it is firm, it never skips a generation to again manifest itself in another; once having yielded its claims, it never regains them.”
Published in the April 15, 1872 issue of Philadelphia’s Medical and Surgical Reporter, Huntington’s report was so lucid, accurate and poetic that the disease has come to bear his name. His insight into the rules of heredity predates by a generation the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws of genetic transmission.
Huntington married Mary Heckard of Pomeroy in Oct. 1874. They had six children, five of whom survived into adulthood. The couple returned to New York soon after and settled in LaGrangeville, Dutchess County. Huntington practiced in this rural community until 1901 when ill health led him move to Asheville, N.C. When his health recovered in 1903, he returned to Dutchess County, settling in Hopewell Junction, where he practiced until 1914 when poor health forced him to retire.
Huntington was elected president of the Dutchess County Medical Society in 1887 and served as a New York State Commissioner in Lunacy for Dutchess County. He was an honorary member of the Brooklyn Neurological Society.
George Huntington died on March 3, 1916 of pneumonia at the home of his son, Dr. Edwin H. Huntington, in Cairo, N.Y.