Bensley, Robert Russell

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Bensley, Robert Russell

(b. Hamilton, Ontario, 13 November 1867; d. Chicago, IIIinols, 11 June 1956)


Bensley was the third of six children born to Robert Daniel Bensley, a prosperous farmer. From his mother, Caroline Vandeleur, Bensley acquired his Irish wit, his love of music and the fine arts, and his talent for languages (he mastered French, German, Italian, and Spanish).

In 1883 he graduated from the Collegiate Institute in Hamilton, a notable achievement in that he had walked the two and a half miles (each way) up and down the “mountain” (as the Niagara escarpment is called there) each day and had also managed to do his share of the farm chores. The following year, Bensley entered University College of the University of Toronto. His academic career was almost ended when, on a hunting trip, he received a shotgun wound in the left leg that severed an artery. The limb was amputated twice, first below the knee and later above the knee, when gangrene set in. After a year of convalescence, Bensley managed to return to University College, and upon his graduation he received the Governor General’s Medal in both arts and sciences. During his convalescence, working in his mother’s kitchen, he learned to stain tissues obtained from farm animals with dyes made from local barks and herbs. He prepared histological slides so well that he was not only excused from the histology laboratory at medical school but was also congratulated for his excellent preparations.

In 1889 Bensley entered the medical department of the University of Toronto; three years later he received the M.B. and became an assistant demonstrator in biology there upon graduation. Four years later, in a paper that won high praise from Sir William Osler, he showed clearly the replenishment of the cells of the gastric mucosa.

Bensley joined the anatomy department of the University of Chicago in 1901, becoming its acting head in the same year and its director in 1907. He differentially stained the cells of the islands of Langerhans in 1906, an achievement that led to Banting’s discovery of insulin. Among his other accomplishments were confirmation of the presence of the Golgi apparatus of cells in in 1910 and, with b.c. H, Harvey in 1912, the demonstration of the mechanism of the gastric secretion of hydrochloric acid.

Bensley pioneered in the study of cell organelles. I. Altman, A. Fisher, W.B. Hardy, and L. Michaelis had previously described mitochondria but, in 1934, with his student I. Gersh, Bensley modified Altman’s freezing-drying technique so that mitochondria could be isolated and subjected to microchemical analysis.

During his twenty-six years at Chicago, Bensley brought to the department of anatomy C. Judson Herrick, George W. Bartelmez, Alexander Maximov, Charles Swift, and William Bloom.

Arthur Benjamin Bensley, Robert’s younger brother, gained fame for his book Practical Anatomy of the Rabbit, as well as for his directorship of the Ontario Museum of Zoology in Toronto.

Bensley’s daughter, Caroline May, was for many years technical assistant in the department of anatomy at the University of Chicago. His son, Robert (husband of Sylvia Holton Bensley), has contributed much to color photography as well as aiding his father in some of the latter’s endeavors in photomicrography.


I. Original Works. A complete list of Bensley’s publications follows Norman L. Hoerr’s memoir (see below), pp. 15–18. Among his works are “The Cardiac Glands of Mammals,” in American Journal of Anatomy, 2 (1902), 105–156; “Upon the Formation of Hydrochloric Acid in the Foveolae and on the Surface of the Gastric Mucous Membrane and the Non-acid Character of the Contents of Gland Cells and Lumina,” in Biological Bulletin, 23 (1912), 225–249, written with b.c. H. Harvey; “The Formation of Hydrochloric Acid on the Free Surface and Not in the Glands of the Gastric Mucous Membrane,” in Transactions of the Chicago Pathological Society, 19 (1913), 14–16, written with b.c. H. Harvey; “The Thyroid Gland of the Opossum,” in Anatomical Record, 8 (1914), 431–440; “Structure and Relationship of the Islets of Langerhans: Criteria of Histological Control in Experiments on the Pancreas,” in Harvey Lectures, 10 (1915), 250–289; “Functions of Differentiated Segments of Uriniferous Tubules,” in American Journal of Anatomy, 41 (1928), 75–96, written with W. B. Steen; “The Gastric Glands,” in Condry’s Special Cytology (New York, 1928); “The Functions of the Differentiated Parts of the Uriniferous Tubule in the Mammal,” in American Journal of Anatomy, 47 (1931), 241–275, written with S. H. Bensley; “Studies on Cell Structure by the Freezing-Drying Method. I. Introduction. II. The Nature of Mitochondria in the Hepatic Cell of Amblystoma,” in Anatomical Record, 57 (1933), 205–235, written with I. Gersh; “Studies on Cell Structure by the Freezing-Drying Method. III. The Distribution in Cells of the Basophil Substances, in Particular the Nissl Substance of the Nerve Cell,” ibid., 369–385, “written with I. Gersh; Studies on Cell Structure by the Freezing-Drying Method. IV. The Structure of the Interkinetic and Resting Nuclei,” ibid., 58 (1933), 1-15: “Studies on Cell Structure by the Freezing–Drying Method. V. The Chemical Basis of the Organization of the Cell,” ibid., 60 (1934) 251–266, written with N. L. Hoerr; and “Studies on Cell Structure by the Freezing-Drying Method. VI. The Preparation and Properties of Mitochondria,” ibid, 449–455, written with N. L. Hoerr.

II. Secondary Literature. Hoerr wrote on his work with Bensley in “Introduction to Cytological Studies with the Freezing-Drying Method. II. Section of HCI in the Stomach,” in Anatomical Record, 65 (1936), 417–435. His memoir on Bensley, prepared with the help of Sylvia H. Bensley, Gordon Scott, et al., is in Anatomical Record, 128 (1957), 1–15.

P. G. Roofe