Walter B. Shelley: honorary riot grrl

In addition to coining the word “keratinocyte”, Walter B. Shelley was also a feminist.  Back in the 1970’s he was concerned with the lack of women’s representation at the AAD (still a problem at the leadership level). So, he chatted with Miriam Reed and Wilma Bergfeld about creating a society that would correct this disparity by helping women through mentorship and developing leadership skills. This became the Women’s Dermatological Society.  Further evidence of his feminism is in Shelley’s relinquishment of his 15-year chairmanship at Penn to move to a farm in Peoria, IL to become a professor of dermatology in a department headed by his wife, Ellen Dorinda Loeffel, who was chairman of dermatology at the Peoria School of Medicine.

Dr. Shelley embodied translational research before that was even a term people used.  He worked with Hurley on sweat glands and thanks to him, we know that stinky sweat is due to bacteria, and that some forms of urticaria can be caused by contact with water. 

mucuna pruriens

In his studies on itching, he was fascinated by itch powder (cowhage) sold by novelty shops. He then was able to extract a proteolytic enzyme from these samples and demonstrated that this protease and other intercellular proteases were able to induce itch.  This was one of the earliest studies that began to demonstrate the complexity of itch and the role of endogenous peptides in its elicitation. Dr. Gil Yosipovitch and Ethan Lerner (son of Aaron Lerner!) have proposed that sensory nerve fibers be called “Shelley Fibers”.  Brian Kim’s recent research on the immune system and cytokine builds on this foundation; it makes me wonder about the chicken and the egg in this story. Proteases can modulate local cytokine expression and together they both contribute to itching.  It’s making me itchy just thinking about it.

close up of cowhage demonstrating tiny barbs the become embedded in the skin and release proteases inducing itch.

He abhorred vague descriptions and titles and felt that publications should preferably communicate some new fact or hypothesis.  When his new term “aquagenic urticaria” was criticized by classicists in the Lancet, his response was “Words are created to transmit new ideas. As such, they arise to serve the reader, not the guardians of linguistic purity.” 


Shelley was also a great believer in the case report as well, stating “It is better to have the candle light of a single case report than to be in the total darkenss of evidence-based medicine.”

 He believed that as clinicians we need to pay attention to new observations, particularly of orphan patients that have baffling diseases that defy conventional categorization. His view was that these unique patients help us unlock underlying mechanisms of disease and make new discoveries that advance the field.  Care of these types of patients was for Dr. Shelley one of the greatest safeguards against practicing “decerebrate dermatology” a term coined by Dr. Albert Kligman, one of Shelley’s good dad

Maybe I’m just glad that we know how to control B.O. thanks to Dr. Shelley, or maybe I just feel a kinship with him because my dad looks like his long-lost brother… (Shelley was an only child). But, I’m pretty grateful that someone with his wisdom and stature (he was 6’4” same as my dad…creepy) decided to blaze the path for women, with women in dermatology.


1. Shelley WB, Contemporaries: JAAD; 8(2) Feb 1983
2. Shelley WB, Arthur RP. The neurohistology and neurophysiology of the itch sensation in man. Arch Derm. (76): Sept 1957.
3. Lerner EA, Yosipovitch G. A tribute to Walter Shelley, a pioneer itch researcher. Arch Dermatol. 146(7); July 2010.
4. Pantheon of Dermatology: Outstanding Historical Figures. Loser, Plewig, Burgdorf. Springer-Verlag, Berlin 2013.
5. Shelley WB. The induction and elicitation of disease in human skin: personal adventures, Dohi Memorial Lecture. Journal of Dermatology. (8): 349-355, 1981.

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Faculty at the Department of Dermatology at the University of Texas Southwestern. interests: cutaneous lymphomas, medical student education, the relationship between art and medicine.

2 thoughts on “Walter B. Shelley: honorary riot grrl

  1. A great and informative article! You are very kind compare me in anyway to Dr. Shelley. Love, Dad

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