Physiology German Style

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Physiology German Style


Moving Science into the Laboratory. Before the 1870s American physiology, the study of how living organisms function and maintain life, was not research based. The laboratory model was imported from Germany during the last quarter of the nineteenth century by American students who studied there. So strong was the German influence that of the thirty-one European-trained founding members of the American Physiological Society (1887), twenty-eight had been trained at German universities. Virtually all the leading American physiologists of the 1890s were trained at the Leipzig laboratory of Carl Ludwig (1816-1895), whose personable, friendly style was more attractive to young Americans than the more typical hard-nosed and imperious demeanor of other leading German scientists.

Following the German Model. All the American scientists who studied in Germany were greatly impressed by the well-appointed experimental facilitiesan endless array of machines, frogs, dogsas William James described a laboratory in Berlin. The first German-style laboratory in the United States was established in 1871 at Harvard University by Henry Pickering Bowditch (1840-1911). As Bowditchs student Frederick W. Ellis described it this laboratory was modest indeed:

At the time that Bowditch became a professor of physiology it was a gracious Harvard custom to allow an incumbent of a new chair of science to furnish his own apparatus, and so he purchased and brought home from Europe instruments that he knew he would need. ... The main room of the old laboratory, which was not a large one, had for its principal furniture a table for experiments, a sink, a workbench and foot lathe and a tub for frogs. A smaller room which was shared with Quincy, who had just been appointed an assistant in histology, contained cases for instruments and a few books. This was the laboratory and equipment that Bowditch used for twelve years.

Yet these facilities were substantially better than those of Bowditchs predecessors. According to Ellis, the first chemistry professor at Harvard, Josiah P. Cooke, who started teaching there in 1850, had to illustrate his lectures with apparatus from a juvenile laboratory which he had established in his fathers house, and his first laboratory in Harvard was in a cellar. Another professor found himself assigned some subterranean locality for laboratory space and was fortunate if he did not need a ladder to get into it, and rubbers after he arrived at his destination. Other Ludwig students set up German-style laboratories

at Yale and Johns Hopkins Universities. By 1880 physiology research required not only a laboratory with elaborate, German-style apparatus and precision instruments but also an array of assistants and technicians. Operating such a laboratory was expensive and required sustained financial support, such as an endowment or some other means of providing the necessary funding. Furthermore, because of the newness of research-based science and the scarcity of laboratories in the United States, Bowditch and other early physiologists had trouble placing their students in jobs.


Among the many Americans who studied with Carl Ludwig in Leipzig was Henry Pickering Bowditch, who imported the German research style to Harvard University. Ludwig was friendly and receptive to the inexperienced young Americans, for whom he fashioned research problems that would bring out their specific talents. In an 1870 letter to a Boston medical journal Bowditch described his experiences in Leipzig:

Prof. Ludwig directs personally all the work done in the laboratory, devoting his whole time to the superintendence of his pupils and making no independent investigations. Each of the pupils, at present nine in number, makes, under the direction of the Professor, a series of experiments with a view of settling some special point in physiology. The results arrived at are published at the end of the year, sometimes under the names of the Professor and pupil together, and sometimes under that of the pupil alone. The whole work of the laboratory forms every year a pamphlet of 150 to 250 pages.

It will thus be seen that abundant facilities are here offered, not only for learning the existing state of physiological science, but also for becoming familiar with the manner in which physiology is at present studied in Germany. The patient, methodical and faithful way in which the phenomena of life are investigated by the German physiologists not only inspires great confidence in their results, but encourages one in the hope that the day is not far distant when physiology will take its proper place as the only true foundation of medical science.

Source: Henry Pickering Bowditch, Letter from Leipzig, Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, 82 (1870): 305-307.

The Rise of Laboratory Science. The development of bacteriology in the wake of advances in germ theory provided the stimulus for laboratory training that set American physiology and laboratory science in general on its way in the United States during the 1880s and 1890s. The founding of the American Physiological Society in 1887 marked the emergence of a new scientific discipline. Laboratory science required educational reform as well as funding. In a period when professors of medicine typically made their livings from their clinical practices and were only part-time instructors, professors of laboratory

sciences had to be employed full-time and pursue research as well as teaching.


Frederick W. Ellis, Henry Pickering Bowditch and the Development of the Harvard Laboratory of Physiology, New England Journal of Medicine, 219 (1938);

Robert G. Frank Jr., American Physiologists in German Laboratories, in Physiology in the American Context, 1850-1940, edited by Gerald L. Geison (Bethesda, Md.: American Physiological Society, 1987), pp. 11-46;

W. Bruce Frye, Growth of American Physiology, 1850-1900, in Physiology in the American Context, 1850-1940, pp. 47-65.