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Bowditch, Henry Pickering

Bowditch, Henry Pickering

(b. Boston, Massachusetts, 9 April 1840; d. Boston, 13 March 1911)


Bowditch was the son of Jonathan Ingersoll Bowditch, a Boston merchant, and Lucy Orne Nichols; his paternal grandfather, Nathaniel Bowditch, a self-educated mathematician, was the author of the New American Practical Navigator (1802) and the translator of Laplace’s Mécanique céleste. His mother was the granddaughter of Timothy Pickering, who served as George Washington’s secretary of state, and was also related to the astronomers Edward and William Pickering and to the important American mathematician Benjamin Peirce.

Bowditch enjoyed a Boston boyhood, an adolescence on the new family estate at West Roxbury, on the outskirts of Boston, and a preparatory education at the school conducted by Epes S. Dixwell; among his classmates was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. He entered Harvard College in September 1857 and graduated in 1861. Intending ultimately to prepare for a career in medicine, he entered the Lawrence Scientific School in Cambridge and commenced studies in natural history and chemistry. By November 1861 the call to arms interrupted his studies, and he accepted a commission as second lieutenant in the First Massachusetts Cavalry. During the course of the Civil War he saw action on numerous occasions and was wounded in battle at New Hope Church in 1863. Having risen to the rank of major, he resigned his command in June 1865 and reentered the Lawrence Scientific School, where he undertook studies in comparative anatomy with Jeffries Wyman. During this same period he completed the requirements of the Harvard Medical School and received the M.A. in 1866 and M.D. in 1868. His graduation thesis, a study of the physiological action of potassium bromide, which included a review of recent work as well as new data gathered at the Harvard Medical School, was published in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (1868).

Late in the summer of 1868 Bowditch departed for Europe to continue his medical and scientific studies. He did not return to Boston until September 1871, when he took up a teaching post at the Harvard Medical School at the invitation of the new president of the university, Charles W. Eliot. These few years were critical in determining his future career and the pattern that his research and teaching took. Although the notebook (in the Harvard Medical Archives) of his first months in Paris has many references to the clinicians Jean-Martin Charcot, Paul Broca, and Pierre Louis—suggesting his intention to combine medical practice and scientific investigation—his later letters give clear indication of a greater attraction toward the purely scientific part of the profession; these were written during his period of study with Claude Bernard and Louis-Antoine Ranvier, when he was devoting three days a week to physiology and another three to microscopy. His notebook indicates that he also heard lectures by many other Paris scientists of the day: Étienne-Jules Marey, on the physics of flight; Jules Gavarret, on the physiology of muscle action; Paul Bert, on the nature of sound and the physiology of its perception; and Edmé-F. A. Vulpian on chemistry of the blood. But his judgment of Parisian medical science was negative: “French physiology has no system.”

At the suggestion of the German physiologist Wilhelm Kühne, Bowditch turned to Germany, first, in May 1869, to study microscopic anatomy at Bonn with Max Schultze and Eduard Rindfleisch, and then, in September 1869, to the Leipzig physiological laboratory of Carl Ludwig. Ludwig’s prominence as a teacher and research scientist made his laboratory one of the most exciting centers of biological research of the period, and there Bowditch met the new generation of experimental physiologists: Thomas Lauder Brunton of Scotland, Ray Lankester of England, Angelo Mosso of Italy, Hugo Kronecker of Germany, and C. Ustimovitsch of Russia. He quickly caught the spirit of the new laboratory, and in November 1869 he developed an improvement of Ludwig’s kymograph, for automatically registering time relations of blood-pressure tracings on the revolving smoked cylinder. He later invented the “Bowditch clock” for marking various periods of elapsed time. An enthusiastic report of German methods and techniques and a description of Ludwig’s institute were the basis of a letter published in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (1870). He was particularly impressed with the apparatus that had been developed for the multitude of tasks in physiological experimentation, and devoted a good deal of time to acquiring many instruments to take back to the Harvard laboratory. The month of November 1870 was spent at Munich, where he attended a course of lectures, on nutrition and metabolism, by Carl Voit. On 9 September 1871, five days before sailing home, Bowditch married Selma Knauth, the daughter of a Leipzig banker.

Several important papers record Bowditch’s experimentation carried out under Ludwig’s direction. One, dealing with the peculiarities of the irritability of cardiac muscle, has long been considered a classic in physiology. Two fundamental characteristics are demonstrated: the Treppe, or steplike increase of contraction of cardiac muscle in response to repeated uniform stimuli, and the “all-or-none law,” showing maximum contraction, or no contraction at all, independently of the strength of stimulation (1871). A second paper studied the influence of variations of arterial blood pressure upon the accelerator and inhibitor nerves of the heart.

On returning to Boston, Bowditch took the post of assistant professor of physiology at Harvard Medical School and installed his newly collected apparatus in the only space allotted him, two small attic rooms at the building on North Grove Street. There he established the first teaching laboratory for physiology in the United States. Emulating his own teacher, Bowditch gathered around him as pupils many talented experimenters, including Charles S. Minot, Warren P. Lombard, James J. Putnam, William James, Joseph W. Warren, Isaac Ott, Robert W. Lovett, and G. M. Garland in physiology and pharmacology and G. Stanley Hall and William F. Southard in experimental psychology. The approach of the Leipzig laboratory, a strong reliance on physical concepts and physical apparatus, was carried over to the Boston laboratory; a new form of induction apparatus permitting variation of intensity, a new form of plethysmograph for registering changes in volume of organs, a new device for artificial respiration, a cannula for observing vocal cords, and an arrangement of unpolarizable electrodes were all developed and used in experimentation.

Bowditch’s scientific interests moved in several directions: in a paper with Minot he showed that chloroform was more effective than ether in depressing vasomotor reflexes (1874); with Garland he studied the “effect of respiratory movements on the pulmonary circulation,” concluding that expansion of the lungs decreases the size of pulmonary vessels, while collapse of the lungs has the opposite effect (1879–1880); with Southard and G. Stanley Hall he investigated the physiology of perception, with particular attention to vision (1880–1882); with Warren he conducted an extensive study of the effect of varying rates and strengths of peripheral stimulation upon contraction and dilation of blood vessels, demonstrating that by varying the stimulation it was possible to cause constriction, constriction followed by dilation, or dilation alone, with rapid stimulation causing constriction and later dilation (1883, 1886). He also conducted another series of experiments with Warren on the effects of voluntary activity and external stimulation on the knee jerk, demonstrating that activity in one part of the nervous system may directly affect activity in another part. The functioning of the nervous system served as a focus for Bowditch’s experimentation for some time and led to one of his most important experiments, which brought a controversy to a close and gave final demonstration of the indefatigability of the nerve trunk, a fact of fundamental importance in the physiology of the nervous system (1885).

As early as 1872 Bowditch began a series of studies in anthropometry, examining the rate of growth in Boston schoolchildren. His results indicated that mode of life—nutrition and environment—were probably more important factors than race in determining the size of growing children. He also called attention to loss of weight in growing children as a warning of the approach of acute or chronic illness (1877, 1881).

Bowditch was one of the principal founders of the American Physiological Society in 1887 and was elected its second president in 1888, succeeding S. Weir Mitchell; he returned to the presidency from 1891–1895. He served as an American editor of Sir Michael Foster’s Journal of Physiology from its founding in 1877 and published the reports of his Harvard laboratory there until the establishment of the American Journal of Physiology in 1898.

Bowditch taught physiology at Harvard for thirty-five years, being appointed full professor in 1876 and serving as first occupant of the George Higginson professorship of physiology from 1903 to his retirement in 1906. He was continually involved in the reforms in medical education, and for the decade 1883–1893 he served as dean of the Harvard Medical Faculty, during which time the four-year medical course was introduced and a new chair of bacteriology established, thus giving recognition to another independent discipline.

Active in Boston civic affairs, Bowditch was a member of the School Committee (1877–1881), president of the Massachusetts Infant Asylum (1886) and the Boston Children’s Aid Society, and a trustee of the Boston Public Library. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1872 and to the National Academy of Sciences in 1887; he was also a member of many other learned academies in the United States and Europe. He was honored by degrees from the universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Toronto, Pennsylvania, and Harvard.

At the time of his retirement in 1906 Bowditch had become afflicted with paralysis agitans, which made serious inroads upon his health and proved fatal.


I. Original Works. Bowditch’s graduation thesis is in Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, 78 (1868), 177–184; the letter on German methods and techniques, and a description of Ludwig’s laboratory, ibid., 82 (1870), 305–307. His work on the irritability of the cardiac muscle is presented in “Über die Eigenthümlichkeiten der Reizbarkeit, welche die Muskelfasern des Herzens zeigen,” in Berichte über die Verhandlungen der Königlichen Sächsischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig, Math.-phys. Klasse, 23 (1871), 652–689. The paper on the effect of chloroform on vasomotor reflexes, written with Minot, is in Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, 91 (1874), 493–498; results of his studies of Boston schoolchildren, in the eighth Annual Report of the Massachusetts State Board of Health (Boston, 1877), pp. 275–325, and in Transactions of the American Medical Association, 32 (1881), 371–377; the paper on the effect of respiratory movements on the pulmonary circulation, studied with Garland, in Journal of Physiology, 2 (1879–1880), 91–109; the study of the effect of peripheral stimulation upon blood vessels, done with Warren, in Zentralblatt für medizinische Wissenschaften, no. 29 (1883), 513–514, and Journal of Physiology, 7 (1886), 416–460; and his work on the indefatigability of the nerve trunk, ibid., 6 (1885), 133–135.

II. Secondary Literature. Other works on Bowditch are Walter Bradford Cannon, in Memoirs of the National Academy of Science, 17 (1922), 183–196; Frederick W. Ellis, “Henry Pickering Bowditch and the Development of the Harvard Laboratory of Physiology,” in New England Journal of Medicine, 219 (1938), 819–828; and Fielding H. Garrison, in Dictionary of American Biography.

Everett Mendelsohn

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