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Hutchinson, John

Hutchinson, John

(b. Ryton, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, 1811; d. Fiji, Sandwich Islands, July 1861)


John Hutchinson carried out fundamental research on respiratory function in health and disease, and invented the spirometer, which is still used today to estimate pulmonary function accurately.

The only son of James Hutchinson, he attended London University College (now University College, London) and became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1836. He first worked at Southampton Dispensary in Leigh Street, London, but his interest centered on scientific, rather than clinical, medicine. He became a fellow of the newly established Statistical Society in 1842 and in 1846 received the degree of M.D. from the University of Giessen. He was appointed assistant physician at the Hospital for Consumption at Brompton, London, and for some years was a physician to the Britannic Life Assurance Company.

Being of a restless disposition, however, Hutchinson set out for Australia in September 1852, soon after gold deposits were discovered there. of his activities during the eight years he spent in Victoria nothing is known, except that he made a large collection of gold-bearing rock valued at £200. In March 1861 he traveled to the Fiji Islands, where he died in July of that year. It is said that he had intended to return to England and had planned to prepare a book on his experiences of colonial and primitive life.

Hutchinson was a man of notable versatility. In addition to his scientific abilities he could play the violin with masterly skill, sculpt in bas-relief, and paint in oils. Moreover, he was an accomplished conversationalist, displaying originality, humor, brilliance, and diversity in his topics of discourse. He lectured with ease and proficiency and could talk on a variety of subjects, which he did in London and in Newcastle-upon-Tyne before the Literary and Philosophical Society.

Hutchinson studied only the mechanical aspects of respiratory function and seems to have had no interest in its chemistry, which was rapidly developing contemporaneously with his work. He investigated in particular the action of the intercostal muscles, and applied physics and mathematics to the problems of thoracic movement and pulmonary ventilation. He did this by dissection, by thoracic measurement, and by making plaster casts of cadavers.

Many before him had been interested in the biophysics of breathing, but Hutchinson was the first to offer a precise subdivision of lung volume: (a) breathing (that is, tidal) air, (b) complemental (inspiratory reserve) air, (c) reserve (expiratory reserve) air, and (d) residual air. The amount of air taken into the lungs with a single deep inspiration (the sum of (a) and (b) above) had been measured by investigators in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but Hutchinson was able to quantify it accurately. He called it the “vital capacity,” a term still in use, and he defined it as “... the greatest voluntary expiration following the deepest inspiration” (Todd’s Cyclopaedia [1849-1852], p. 1065).

Hutchinson invented the spirometer in order to measure this volume of air. He was not the first to use such an instrument, since W. Clayfield of London had already employed a crude gasometer.1 But Hutchinson’s work was much more accurate,2 and his machine was the forerunner of all modern methods of estimating pulmonary function. Moreover, his research was extensive and his interpretation and application of it significant.

Kentish3 and Herbst4 had shown that respiratory formation is modified by height, age, and disease, and Hutchinson, extending this work, proved conclusively that the vital capacity is directly related to the height of the individual (Lancet [1844], 1, 567–570, 594–597). He made observations on a wide variety of subjects, including fire-brigademen, wrestlers, gentlemen, and a three-foot nine-inch dwarf, and found that lung capacity increased in an arithmetical progression of eight cubic inches for every inch of actual human height. He also demonstrated that the vital capacity decreases with aging, the accretion of excess bodily weight, or the contraction of a lung disease such as pulmonary tuberculosis, to which he gave special attention. He prepared many tables based on his researches, which involved nearly 4,000 individuals both healthy and sick, ranging from watermen to princes of the blood; and he could establish standards statistically acceptable for use, especially in life insurance work. This general scope, however, prompted one of the main criticisms of Hutchinson’s work, namely that he expressed his data in averages and gave less attention to individual variations. Moreover, his plea for widespread adoption of the spirometer for diagnosis of lung disease, as well as for evaluation of the healthy state, has since been adjudged to have been not entirely justified.

Hutchinson’s research, nevertheless, was important and influential, and affirms his place as a pioneer in the investigation of pulmonary physiology and pathology; his research was described by a contemporary as “... one of the most valuable contributions to physiological science that we have met with for some time” (British and Foreign Medical Review, 24 [1847], 327–328). He recorded his findings in a series of papers between 1844 and 1850, the best expositions of them being published in 1846 with several subsequent translations, and between 1849 and 1852 in Todd’s Cyclopaedia. In 1852 his book The Spirometer, the Stethoscope, and Scale-Balance explored the various ways of quantifying physiological and clinical data, as applied to life-insurance medical examinations.

Not surprisingly, owing to his upbringing in a colliery district, Hutchinson also investigated coal mining conditions, especially accidents, and he gave valuable evidence to committees of the House of Lords on this subject. In addition he studied the general problems of fire, hert, and ventilation in industry.


1. T. Beddoes and J. Watt, Considerations on the Medicinal Use of Factitious Airs and on the Manner of Obtaining Them, 3rd ed. (London, 1794[?]–1796), pt. 3,p. 103. A drawing of Clayfield’s machine forms the frontispiece to H. Davy, Researches Chemical and Philosophical: Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide or Dephlogisticated Nitrous Air and Its Respiration (London, 1800).

2. J. H. Arnett, “The Vital Capacity of the Lungs. Early Observations and Instruments,” in Medical Life, 43 (1936), 3–6.

3. E. Kentish, An Account of Baths, and of a Madeira-House at Bristol With a Drawing and Description of a Pulsometer... (London, 1814).

4. E. F. G. Herbst, “Ueber die Capacität der Lungen für Luft, in gesunden und kranken Zustände,” in Archiv für Anatomie und Physiologie, 3 (1828), 83–107.


I. Original Works. Hutchinson’s work on respiratory functions was reported in the following: “Pneumatic Appratus for Valuing the Respiratory Powers,” in Lancet (1844), 1, 390–391; “Lecture on Vital Statistics, Embracing an Account of a New Instrument for Detecting the Presence of Disease in the System,” in Lancet (1844), 1, 567–570, 594–597; Contributions to Vital Statistics, Obtained by Means of a Pneumatic Apparatus for Valuing the Respiratory Powers With Relation to Health (London, 1844); “On the Capacity of the Lungs, and on the Respiratory Functions, With a View of Establishing a Precise and Easy Method of Detecting Disease by the Spirometer,” in Medico-Chirurgical Transactions, 29 (1846), 137–252, German trans. as Von der Capacität der Lungen und von den Athmungs-Functionen... (Brunswick, 1848). An abstract with contemporary assessment is in British and Foreign Medical Review, 24 (1847), 327–328.

See also “Thorax,” in R. B. Todd, ed., The Cyclopaedia of Anatomy and Physiology IV, pt. 2 (London, 1849–1852), 1016–1087; and The Spirometer, the Stethoscope, and Scale-Balance; Their Use in Discriminating Diseases of the Chest, and Their Value in Life-Offices... (London, 1852).

He also published “On Ventilation in General,” in Journal of Public Health, 1 (1848), 231–234, 263–264, 295–298, 311–315; and 2 (1849), 3–7, 29–32, 57–61, 85–88, 115–117, 141–145, 169–175, 225–229.

II Secondary Literature. There is no adequate biographical account of Hutchinson, but the following are valuable: “The Late Dr. John Hutchinson,” in Medical Times and Gazette, 1 (1862), 200–201; “John Hutchinson, M.D.,” in Lancet (1862), 1 , 240; A. Hirsch, Biographisches Lexikon der hervorragenden Aerzte (Vienna-Leipzig, 1886), III, 327–328; and “A Pioneer in Spirometry,” in Lancet (1920), 2, 563.

Edwin Clarke

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