Simms came to the School of Medicine in 1936 at the age of 19 as a technician in the Department of Surgery. From north St. Louis, Simms had completed two years of college at the University of Minnesota and dreamed of becoming an engineer, but his father’s death forced him to drop out and return home to help support his family. He never completed his degree.
Apart from a few years in the 1940s, Simms spent his career at the School of Medicine. In 1953, he joined a group led by Arthur Kornberg, MD, in the Department of Microbiology. Simms was an author on influential papers detailing how genetic information is duplicated and then passed on to the next generation. The importance of the research was recognized by the Nobel Committee in 1959, when they awarded Kornberg and Severo Ochoa, MD, a Nobel Prize for the discovery of the mechanisms responsible for the synthesis of DNA and RNA.
When Kornberg moved his lab to Stanford University, Simms chose to remain in St. Louis and took a position with Herman Eisen, MD, the head of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. There, he contributed to studies of how an individual’s immune system recognizes and reacts against virtually limitless numbers of different foreign substances called antigens. His work helped lay the foundations of modern immunology.
Simms was also a leader outside the laboratory. During World War II, he worked at a small-arms plant making bullets for the war effort. There, he led a successful strike for better working conditions for his fellow African Americans. At the School of Medicine, he trained a generation of scientists and served on the admissions committee, where he advocated for minority applicants.
In 1968, the School of Medicine recognized Simms’ talents and accomplishments by promoting him to research assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. In light of his outstanding contributions across two fields, the School of Medicine promoted him again in 1972, to associate professor, and awarded him tenure, despite his lack of a college degree. After his death, the School of Medicine established an endowed scholarship in his name that was funded through gifts from his friends, colleagues and students.
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