Burdon-Sanderson, John Scott

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Burdon-Sanderson, John Scott

(b. Jesmond, near Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, 21 December 1828; d. Oxford, England, 23 November 1905)

pathology, physiology.

Burdon-Sanderson was the son of Richard Burdon, a onetime Oxford don who later severed his connection with the Church of England and became active in evangelical work, and Elizabeth Sanderson, daughter of Sir James Sanderson, M.P., a London merchant who was twice lord mayor of London. Intended by his family for the law, he early developed an interest in natural science. After private instruction at home, he entered the University of Edinburgh in 1847 to study medicine. Among the teachers who influenced him there were John Balfour, John Good-sir, and John Hughes Bennett. Upon graduating M.D. in 1851, he was awarded a gold medal for his thesis on the metamorphosis of the colored blood corpuscles.

In the autumn of 1851, Burdon-Sanderson traveled to Paris, where he studied chemistry in the laboratories of Charles Gerhardt and Charles Wurtz, and attended Claude Bernard’s lectures on physiology. Late in 1852, he settled in London to practice medicine, and in August 1853 married Ghetal Herschell, daughter of the Rev. Ridley Herschell. In the same year, he was appointed medical registrar at St. Mary’s Hospital, where he later served as lecturer on botany (1854–1855) and on medical jurisprudence (1855–1862). He was medical officer of health for the parish of Paddington from 1856 to 1867 and inspector for the medical department of the Privy Council from 1860 to 1865. The duties attached to these positions led him into his first work in pathology. He also served on the staffs of the Brompton Hospital for Consumption (1859–1863; 1865–1871) and Middlesex Hospital (1863–1870).

About 1870, Burdon-Sanderson resigned his hospital appointments in order to devote himself exclusively to scientific research. In the same year, he was appointed professor of practical physiology and histology at University College, London, succeeding Michael Foster. In 1874 he succeeded William Sharpey as Jodrell professor of human physiology at University College and remained there until 1882, when he became the first occupant of the Waynflete chair of physiology at Oxford University. His appointment met with violent opposition from antivivisectionists at Oxford (he was notorious for having coauthored a guide to vivisection), and funds for a laboratory of physiology were secured only with great effort. He resigned the Waynflete chair in 1895 to become Regius professor of medicine at Oxford. During his tenure in this chair, several essential reforms were achieved, including the creation of a complete course in pathology and bacteriology.

Burdon-Sanderson’s reputation in pathology resulted primarily from his pioneer experimental investigations of contagious diseases and the infective processes. These began with his demonstration in 1865 of the particulate nature of the infective agent in cattle plague and with his confirmation in 1867 of Jean Villemin’s experiments on the inoculability of tuberculosis in animals. Although he was generally considered one of the leading exponenets in England of the germ theory of disease, there is an ambiguity in his views that makes it difficult to summarize his position simply. In 1869, in his widely discussed work, “On the Intimate Pathology of Contagion”, he confirmed Auguste Chauveau’s conclusion that the contagium in vaccine lymph was particulate, since the aqueous portion of the lymph was inactive while the solid portion was active. At the same time, he suggested that the infective particles were probably “organized beings” which owed their pathogenicity to their organic development. But when he later demonstrated that bacteria were invariably present in septicemia and pyemia, he avoided the conclusion that the bacteria were directly causative; and as late as 1877 he held that “there is but one case [splenic fever] in which the existence of a disease germ has been established” (Nature, 17 [1877], 86). His cautious attitude toward the germ theory resulted from the conflicting nature of the evidence then available, and from his own tendency toward theoretical skepticism. Although not unreasonable, this caution obscures his position as a prophet of the germ theory.

In physiology Burdon-Sanderson’s earliest work dealt with the effects of respiratory movements on the circulation (Croonian lecture, 1867), but he later devoted himself almost exclusively to electrophysiological investigations, most notably those on the leaf of Dionaea muscipula (the Venus’s-flytrap). While experimenting on insectivorous plants for Charles Darwin in 1873, he found that a pronounced electrical current accompanied the familiar closing of the flytrap leaf after stimulation of its excitable hairs. He suggested that this current was indicative of rapidly propagated molecular changes in the leaf cells, and compared this process with the corresponding process in active animal muscle.

Like Michael Foster at Cambridge, Burdon-Sanderson was an important force in establishing physiology as an independent discipline in England. He urged the adoption of the experimental approach to pathology as well as to physiology, and from 1871 to 1878 he was professor superintendent of the newly created Brown Institution, the first laboratory for pathology in England. Among his students at University College, London, were William Bayliss, Francis Gotch, Victor Horsley, William Osler, and G. J. Romanes. The group that later worked under him at Oxford—although it included Gotch—was, in general, less eminent.

Burdon-Sanderson’s versatile achievements brought him numerous honors. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1867, delivered its Croonian lecture on three occasions (1867, 1877, and 1899), and was awarded its Royal Medal in 1883. The Royal College of Physicians elected him a fellow in 1871, appointed him Harveian orator in 1878, and awarded him the Baly Medal in 1880. He was president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1893, and was created a baronet in 1899.


I. Original Works. Burdon-Sanderson’s early positionon the germ theory of disease is best revealed in the following papers: “Introductory Report on the Intimate Pathology of Contagion.” in Twelfth Report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council [1869], Parliamentary Papers (London, 1870), pp. 229–256; “Preparations Showing the Results of Certain Experimental Inquiries Relating to the Nature of the Infective Agent in Pyaemia,” in Transactions of the Pathological Society, 23 (1872), 303–308; remarks in the discussion on the germ theory of disease, ibid., 26 (1875), 284–289; and “The Occurrence of Organic Forms in Connection With Contagious and Infective Diseases,” in British Medical Journal (1875), 1 , 69–71, 199–201, 403–405, 435–437. For his later position, see his “Croonian Lectures on the Progress of Discovery Relating to the Origin and Nature of the Infective Diseases,” in Lancet (1891), 2 , 1027–1032, 1083–1088, 1149–1154, 1207–1211. The first announcement of his discovery of the electric current in Dionaea appeared in the Report of the British Association, 43 (1873), 133. The most elaborate accounts of his electrophysiological investigations of Dionaea and of muscle are “On the Electromotive Properties of the Leaf of Dionaea in the Excited and Unexcited States [1881],” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 173 (1882), 1–55; and “Croonian Lecture on the Relation of Motion in Animals and Plants to the Electrical Phenomena Which Are Associated With It [1899],” in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 65 (1900), 37–64. Burdon-Sanderson edited Hand-book for the Physiological Laboratory (London, 1873), which he wrote with E. Klein, Michael Foster, and T. Lauder Brunton; this was the first work of its kind in English. His letters and private papers are deposited in the library of University College, London.

II. Secondary Literature. The basic source for Burdon-Sanderson’s life and work is Lady [Ghetal] Burdon-Sanderson’s Sir John Burdon Sanderson: A Memoir, With Selections From His Papers and Addresses, completed and edited by his nephew, J. S. Haldane, and his niece, E.S. Haldane (Oxford, 1911). This valuable book is an unusually good example of its genre. For other accounts, see Arthur MacNalty, in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine (London), 47 (1954), 754–758; British Medical Journal (1905), 2 , 1481–1492; Lancet (1905), 2 , 1652–1655; and Francis Gotch, in Dictionary of National Biography, supp. 2, 1 (1912), 267–269; Proceedings of the Royal Society (London), 79B (1907), iii-xviii; and Nature, 73 (1905–1906), 127–129. When seeking references to Burdon-Sanderson in indexes and catalogs, check under both surnames.

Gerald L. Geison

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