William A. Hinton was born on December 15, 1883, in Chicago, Illinois. His parents had both been enslaved. He entered Harvard College in 1902 and graduated in 1905. Between college and medical school, Hinton taught at Walden University in Nashville, Tennessee, the Agricultural and Mechanical College in Langston, Oklahoma, and Meharry Medical College, and continued his own education during the summer at the University of Chicago. He entered HMS in 1909 and completed his MD degree in 1912. Hinton was awarded the Hayden scholarship, reserved for African American students, but turned it down and competed for and was awarded the Wigglesworth Scholarship. He wanted to specialize in surgery, but after being denied by Boston-area hospitals, turned to the laboratory.
In 1912, Dr. Hinton began working part-time as a volunteer assistant in the Department of Pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital, and for three years he performed autopsies on all persons suspected of having syphilis. He then worked at the Wassermann Laboratory, which was the Massachusetts State Laboratory for communicable diseases at HMS. During this time, Dr. Hinton developed a new serological test for syphilis, known as the Hinton test, which became the standard.
In 1915, the Wassermann Laboratory was transferred from HMS to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and Hinton was appointed Assistant Director of the Division of Biologic Laboratories and Chief of the Wassermann Laboratory, a position in which he served for 38 years. The serology lab at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Laboratory Institute building was named for Dr. Hinton.
Dr. Hinton began teaching at HMS in 1918 as an Instructor in Preventive Medicine and Hygiene, and in 1921, his responsibilities expanded to include Bacteriology and Immunology. He was appointed Instructor in Bacteriology and Immunology in 1946, twenty-five years after his first appointment. He was promoted to Clinical Professor in 1949, thus becoming the first African-American Professor at Harvard University. He was promoted to Clinical Professor only one year before his retirement.