Carlson, Anton Julius

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Carlson, Anton Julius

(b. Bohuslan, Sweden, 29 January 1875; d. Chicago, Illinois, 2 September 1956),


Besides being a creative scientist, Carlson was a gifted teacher, a philosopher, a civil libertarian, an academic statesman, and a public educator of unusual talent and influence.

Born into a farm family, Carlson came to the United States alone in 1891, knowing scarcely a word of English, to join an older brother, Albin, who had immigrated earlier to become a carpenter in Chicago and had sent him money for his passage. He spent the next two years as a carpenter’s helper, earning $1.25 a day for ten hours of work and, more important, learning enough English to be able to enroll in Augustana Academy, a Swedish Lutheran school associated with Augustana College and Theological Seminary in Rock Island, Illinois. Carlson was an unusually serious and ambitious student and completed the work of the academy and college in five and a half years. His original intention was to become a minister in the Lutheran Church, and after graduation he became a substitute pastor in the Swedish Lutheran church of Anaconda, Montana, where he gave sermons (in Swedish) and also taught classes in science and philosophy. Although dubious about the acceptability of the rigid dogma of the church even while he was in college, Carlson had nevertheless been elected valedictorian by his classmates; however, the election was voided by the faculty because he had already given cause for concern as to his doctrinal positions. Within a year after assuming his ministerial post he had decided that he could not maintain his intellectual integrity while pretending adherence to dogma to which he no longer subscribed. He therefore announced to his congregation that he was leaving the ministry to study neurophysiology, stating his reasons quite candidly.

Carlson borrowed money from a friend to go to Stanford University, where he began his graduate studies in either 1899 or 1900. His first research was on conduction velocity in nerves, and he demonstrated that in the motor nerves of certain invertebrates, such as those in the pseudopod of the slug, the conduction time was increased with elongation of the organ. In 1902 he earned a Ph.D. at Stanford with a dissertation based on his conduction velocity studies. Carlson became a research associate of the Carnegie Institution for two years, spending part of the time at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Station. There, in 1904, he began his studies on the heart of the horseshoe crab Limulus, which established the neurogenic mechanism of automaticity and of conduction of excitation in the heart of Limulus. This work led to his being offered a position as associate in the department of physiology of the University of Chicago, where he remained for the rest of his working life. He was promoted through the ranks to professor in 1914, chairman of the department in 1916, and emeritus professor in 1940.

Carlson continued his work on the comparative physiology of automaticity in the heart and on mechanisms of conduction for several years, publishing thirty-seven papers on the comparative physiology of the heart in invertebrates, including a definitive review in 1909 in me Ergebnisse der Physiologie. After 1909 his publications dealt mainly with other problems, including studies on lymph formation, on several endocrine organs, and on the physiology of the stomach. Long before the discovery of insulin he made the interesting and important observation that during the latter part of pregnancy it was not possible to produce diabetes by pancreatectomy in the gravid dog but that symptoms occurred promptly after delivery. These observations contributed to the proof that the antidiabetic substance of the pancreas is carried by the bloodstream and is capable of passing the placental barrier.

Carlson’s first publications on the physiology of the stomach, which appeared in 1912, began a long series of studies of gastric physiology with a number of colleagues, especially Arno B. Luckhardt, who worked with him at the University of Chicago for the remainder of his career. Carlson carried on extensive studies on the nervous control of the hunger mechanism and established the role of the vagal innervation of the stomach in its motor activity. In 1915 he published a sixty-four-page summary in the Harvey Society Lecture Series, summarizing the work of others and himself on all aspects of the hunger mechanism.

During World War I, Carlson enlisted as an of ficer in the Sanitary Corps of the U. S. Army and became concerned with the nutritional problems of the military. After the war he was assigned to work with the Hoover Commission, which was involved in feeding the undernourished in Europe. He played an important part in this relief work and came into intimate personal contact with the consequences of the devastation of towns and villages all over central Europe. These experiences probably accounted for his later antiwar views, which resulted in his strong early opposition to American participation in World War II.

Besides his numerous contributions to science, Carlson played an important part in many public service enterprises. He testified for the Food and Drug Administration concerning lead residue from application of lead arsenate as an insecticide and thus became an early champion of antipollution legislation. He was also the leader in American scientific circles in the fight against antivivisectionists. His scientific work during the years after 1915 was carried on largely with dogs and cats which he obtained from among the unclaimed animals at the Chicago city pound. He was responsible for the passage of ordinances by the city council which authorized such practice but had to carry on a running battle to keep these sources of supply open. His experiences with the antivivisectionists encouraged Carlson to organize the National Society for Medical Research, of which he was president for twelve years. With a former pupil, Andrew C. Ivy, he organized virtually all of the biological science societies into the Council of the NSMR and obtained funds to carry on a vigorous educational campaign to alert the American people to the hazards to the public welfare inherent in legislation which would cripple research in medicine and other biological fields.

Carlson, an ardent civil libertarian, served a term as president of the American Association of University Professors. He was active in the Association for the Protection of the Foreign Born and was a sponsor of the Humanist Manifesto of the American Humanist Association. He received many honors, including the Distinguished Service Award of the American Medical Association in 1946. Carlson was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1920 and was a member of the American Philosophical Society. He served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physiological Society, and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

His colorful personality made Carlson a stimulating teacher and a sought-after lecturer for both professsional and academic audiences. In discussing scientific problems, his first question in connection with any theory or conclusion was, “What is the evidence?” He died of cancer of the prostate after a long illness.

One of Carlson’s former students and colleagues, Lester R. Dragstedt, wrote of him:

In the death of Dr. Carlson the world has lost a vigorous voice for human freedom, science has lost a biologist of great critical judgment and intuition, and the United States a great citizen…. His gift for keen analysis, his ready wit and pungent criticism, so often displayed at scientific meetings, gave him an acknowledged place of leadership in biological and medical societies. It is probable that no man in America not engaged in clinical practice had so great an effect on medicine.


I. Original Works. Carlson’s works include “The Rate of Nervous Impulse in Certain Molluscs,” in American Journal of Physiology, 8 (1903), 251–268, written with O. P. Jenkins; “The Rhythm Produced in the Resting Heart of Molluscs by the Stimulation of the Cardioaccelerator Nerves,” ibid, 12 (1904), 55–66; “The Nervous Origin of the Heartbeat in Limulus and the Nervous Nature of Coordination or Conduction in the Heart,” ibid, 67– 74;“Further Evidence of the Fluidity of the Conducting Substance in Nerve,” ibid, 13 (1905), 351–357; “On the Mechanism of Co-ordination and Conduction in the Heart with Special Reference to the Heart of Limulus,” ibid., 15 (1906),99–120; “Comparative Physiology of the Invertebrate Heart VI. The Excitability of the Heart During the Different Phases of the Heart-beat,” ibid. 16 (1906). 67– 84;“Vergleichende Physiologie der Herznerven and der Herzganglien bei den Wirbellosen,” in Lrgebmwe der physi-ologie (biologischen Chemie and experimentellen Pharmakologie), 8 (1909), 371–462; “The Effects of Stretching the Nerve on the Rate of Conduction of the Nervous Impulse,” in American Journal of Physiology, 27 (1910). 323– 330;“Contributions to the Physiology of the Stomach. II. The Relation Between the Contractions of the Empty Stomach and the Sensation of Hunger,” ibid. 31 (1912). 175– 192;“The Secretion of Gastric Juice in Man,” ibid., 37 (1915),50–73; On the Nervous Control of the Hunger Mechanism, Harvey Lecture, (Philadelphia-London, 1917), 37–100; “The Endocrine Function of the Pancreas and Its Relation to the Sex Life of Women,” in Surgery, Gynecology, and Obstetrics, 25 (1917). 283–293; “A Few Observations of Certain Conditions in Europe After the War,” in Journal of the Missouri Medical Association, 17 (1920), 229; “Experimentation and Medicine; Man’s Debt to the Animal World,” in Hygeia, 13 (1935). 126–128; “FundamentalSciences—Their Role in Medical Progress (Elias Potter Lyon Lecture),” in Journal of the American Medical College, 15 (1940), 351–358: “Science and the Supernatural (William Vaughan Moody Lecture),” in Scientific Monthly, 59 (1944) 85–95; and “Science of Biology and Future of Man,” in Science, 100 (1944). 437–439.

II. Secondary Literature. The major source on Carlson and his work is Lester R. Dragstedt, “Anton Julius Carlson,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 35 (1961).

Maurice B. Visscher

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Carlson, Anton Julius

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