Hiram Houston Merritt (known as Houston) was a major figure in 20th century neurology, and a longtime academic leader at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. Merritt was born January 12, 1902 in Wilmington, North Carolina. He attended the University of North Carolina and Vanderbilt University, where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1922. He earned his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1926, then interned at Yale-New Haven Hospital. He trained in neurology and neuropathology at the Boston City Hospital and in Germany. From 1931 to 1944, he held teaching positions at Harvard Medical School, and rose to the rank of Associate Professor of Neurology. At the same time, he was a Visiting Neurologist at Boston City Hospital and a Consulting Neurologist at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. During those years, Merritt conducted research that produced classic studies of cerebrospinal fluid and of neurosyphilis. Also, in collaboration with Tracy Putnam, Merritt discovered Dilantin, a major antiepileptic drug.
In 1944, Merritt moved to New York to become Chief of Columbia's Division of Neuropsychiatry at Montefiore Hospital. In 1948, he became Chairman of the Department of Neurology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons and Director of the Neurology Service at the Neurological Institute of Presbyterian Hospital. He held these two posts for 20 years, and established the Neurological Institute as one of the world's leading neurological centers. In 1958, Merritt also became Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Vice-President of Medical Affairs at Columbia University, a post he held until his retirement in 1970. Under his leadership, Columbia established an affiliation with Harlem Hospital in the 1960s, and constructed the William Black Building in 1965. During these years, Merritt was also a neurological consultant to many world leaders, including President Dwight Eisenhower and Premier Antonio Salazar of Portugal.
Merritt wrote over 200 articles and several books, including a textbook of neurology long regarded as the standard reference work in the field. He served on the Editorial Board of the Archives of Neurology from 1956 to 1962, and was its Editor-in-Chief from 1962 to 1971. Merritt also served in various capacities for numerous government agencies, foundations, and professional organizations, including the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the United Cerebral Palsy Association, the Muscular Dystrophy Association of America, the Epilepsy Association of America, and the Parkinson's Disease Foundation. He was Director of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology from 1942-50, President of the Association for Research in Nervous and Mental Disease in 1952, and President of the American Neurological Association in 1956-57. He held honorary degrees from Harvard and Columbia and honorary memberships in neurological societies around the world.
Merritt married Mabel Carmichael in 1930, and he and his wife were longtime residents of Bronxville, N.Y., and Branford, CT. Houston Merritt died on January 9, 1979.