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The Obama-Baxley Connection

Henry W Baxley

Six Degrees of Separation: From Obama to the Director of Pathology

In his 1929 collection of short stories Everything is Different, the Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy introduced the concept that every person on this planet is "linked" to every other person by at most six degrees of separation. This theory was expanded upon over the ensuing decades and became wildly popular in the 1990s, thanks to John Guare's play Six Degrees of Separation and the movie that followed.

When a president of the United States is elected, there is a flurry of investigation into the new president's ancestry, often uncovering links to individuals with special meaning. The Irish author and filmmaker Gabriel Murray uncovered an interesting connection between President Barack Obama's Irish ancestors and the Baxley family of Baltimore, Maryland (Murray 2012). In his documentary and book Obama's Irish Roots: The Lost History, Murray noted that just as President Obama dedicated his presidency to health care reform, so too did several members of the Baxley family dedicate their careers to improving health delivery (Miller 1996).

The 44th President's great-great-grandmother was Mary Anne Kearney (1869-1936), and Mary Anne Kearney's great-grandfather was William Kearney (1762-1828). In 1790, when George Washington was president and signed the Naturalization Act (the first attempt of the government to regulate immigration), William's brother Thomas Kearney (1765-1846) emigrated from Moneygall, Ireland to Maryland, where he married Sarah Baxley (1774-1845).

Several members of the Baxley family played important roles in improving health care in Maryland and the nation (Miller 1996). For example, Jackson Brown Baxley (1814-1896), Sarah's nephew, helped to establish the Maryland College of Pharmacy and advocated for laws requiring the registration of pharmacists, and Henry Willis Baxley (1803-1876), Jackson Brown's brother, founded in 1839 the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, the first school of dentistry in the United States.What does all of this have to do with our Department? In 1876, Henry Willis Baxley (figure) left a bequest of $23,836.52 to the trustees of the Johns Hopkins University "to endow any medical professorship that they might think proper." The fund was kept intact and invested for 25 years until March 1901 when the University used it to establish the Baxley Professorship of Pathology. This was the first endowed professorship in the School of Medicine (SOM), and Dr. William Henry Welch (1850-1934), the first director of the Department of Pathology and first dean of the SOM, was the first to hold the professorship (Flexner 1941). Welch, through his leadership as the first dean and director of Pathology in the School of Medicine, and as the Baxley Professor of Pathology, transformed American medicine, and thanks to Welch, medicine in America would forever be viewed through the lens of science. President Barack Obama, Henry Willis Baxley, William Henry Welch, and the holder of the Baxley Chair (the Director of the Department of Pathology) are forever linked.


  • Flexner, S. F. J. T. 1941. William Henry Welch and the Heroic Age of American Medicine, The Viking Press, New York.
  • Miller, J. M. 1996. The Baxley Family: 169 Years of Continuous Humanitarian Service, Maryland Medical Journal 45: 324-326.
  • Murray, G. 2012. Obama's Irish Roots, Youcanprint Self-Publishing.