Chittenden, Russell Henry

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Chittenden, Russell Henry

(b. New Haven, Connecticut, 18 February 1856; d. New Haven, 26 December 1943),

physiological chemistry.

Chittenden was the only child of Horace Horatio Chittenden, the superintendent of a small factory in New Haven, and Emily Eliza Doane of Westbrook, Connecticut. He attended private and public schools in New Haven and entered the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University in 1872, planning a career in medicine.

His undergraduate thesis problem was assigned to him by Professor Samuel W. Johnson, who asked him to find out why scallops, when served warmed over from a previous meal, always seemed sweeter than when freshly cooked. Chittenden discovered that the scallop muscle contains glycogen and glycine and was thus the first to observe the occurrence of free glycine (then called glycocoll) in nature. At Johnson’s suggestion a German translation of the paper was submitted to Liebig’s Annalen in 1875; in 1878 W. Kühne, who had read the paper, invited Chittenden to be his student and lecture assistant at the University of Heidelberg, where Chittenden had gone for a year of advanced training.

In 1880, a year after his return from Germany, Chittenden was awarded the Ph.D. and two years later he was appointed professor of physiological chemistry in the Sheffield Scientific School. Shortly thereafter he became a member of the governing board of the school and its permanent secretary.

Chittenden attained wide recognition as a teacher and investigator and his students carried his principles and methods to almost every other medical shcool in the Country. In a monograph of 1930, The Development of Physiological Chemistry in in the United States, Chittenden argued that this science, as represented in the current faculties in the medical schools of the country, had grown almost entirely from seeds planted in New Haven.

Chittenden’s administrative talents were as great as his pedagogical ones. In 1898 he succeeded Brush—whom he had assisted as an undergraduate—as director of the Sheffield Scientific School and as its treasurer. He thus assumed responsibility for the entire administration of the school—the development of policies, all appointments, the enlargement of facilities, the management of funds, and especially the complex relationship between the financially independent school and Yale College. After his retirement in 1922 he retained his membership of the Board of Trustees of the school and continued his service as treasurer until 1930.

Chittenden’s scientific work falls into two major categories. Under the influence of Kühne, he became interested in the action of the enzymes which render food materials soluble and available for absorption by the organism; and for a number of years he engaged in a collaboration with Kühne to discover the action of proteolytic enzymes. Kühne and Chittenden made parallel experiments in Heidelberg and in New Haven in an effort to discover what happens when insoluble protein in the digestive tract is rendered soluble and is absorbed by the body. They exchanged data and published their findings jointly. Such collaboration between an American and a European scientist was almost unique at that period. Although later methods of analysis do not substantiate their hypotheses concerning the nature of proteins, Chittenden’s and Kühne’s basic premise—that digestion is a gradual process—was sound and laid a firm technical foundation for the study of enzymes.

Chittenden’s second area of investigation was concerned with toxicology. He was further concerned with the scientific legal evidence in a number of cases of poisoning and was involved in research upon the effects of heavy metals and of many drugs. His long-continued investigations on the effects of alcohol on man received international recognition as did his work from 1908 to 1915 with the Referee Board of the Secretary of Agriculture on sodium benzoate and other commercially used additives to human food.

Chittenden’s most important contribution to physiological chemistry is probably his study of the protein requirement of man, a study that had an amusing origin when in 1902 Chittenden learned of a rich American, Mr. Horace Fletcher, who maintained that his extraordinary physical development and good health were a consequence of long-continued mastication of every mouthful of food he took (“Fletcherism”). Mr. Fletcher was a guest in Chittenden’s home for several months; Chittenden shrewdly noted that his consumption of protein food was remarkably low. At a period when the necessary intake of protein was assumed to be 118 grams per day, or the so-called Voit standard, Fletcher consumed about forty grams of protein a day, yet could compete to advantage with young students in the gymnasium at Yale. Chittenden made experiments on himself and a group of young subjects (a detachment of volunteers from the Hospital Corps of the army) and concluded that men could be maintained in good health on a diet that contained about fifty grams of protein and yielded 2,500 to 2,600 calories per day. (He ignored the excessive mastication advocated by Fletcher.) He further hypothesized that various ailments might be the result of high-protein diets due to toxic products of the decomposition of protein in the colon. During World War I Chittenden was one of the American committee especially concerned with the supply of protein food to the Allies; the results of his experiment established that a standard diet supplying 3,300 calories per day was adequate for men doing average work.

Chittenden served for many years as a member of the editorial boards of several journals, in particular the American Journal of Physiology, the Journal of Experimental Medicine, and, later, the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Chittenden maintained throughout his life that physiological chemistry is a pure biological science, on a par with zoology and botany. Although it is a part of the science of physiology it should not be restricted to the needs of any applied science (such as medicine). Were physiological chemistry allowed to develop on a broad basis, useful applications would surely be found—but specialized development would be undesirable. The present position of what is today known as biochemistry is clear justification of Chittenden’s views.


Between 1875 and 1917, Chittenden published some hundred papers in scientific journals, at first mainly in the American Journal of Science and the American Chemical Journal. For a number of years after 1884 many papers appeared in the Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences. Reprints of these, together with reprints from other journals, were bound for private circulation as Studies from the Laboratory of Physiological Chemistry, Yale University (3 vols., 1885–1888) and are to be found in many university libraries.

Chittenden’s books include Digestive Proteolysis (New Haven, 1895); Physiological Economy in Nutrition with Special Reference to the Minimal Proteid Requirement of the Healthy Man, An Experimental Study (New York, 1904); The Nutrition of Man (New York, 1907); The Influences of Sodium Benzoate on the Nutrition and Health of Man, U.S. Department of Agriculture Report No. 88 (Washington, D.C., 1909); pp. 13–292; Influence of Vegetables Greened with Copper Salts on the Nutrition and Health of Man, U.S. Department of Agriculture Report No. 97 (Washington, D.C., 1913); History of the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University 1846–1922, 2 vols. (New Haven, 1928); The Development of Physiological Chemistry in the United States, American Chemical Society Monograph No. 54 (New York, 1930); and The First Twenty-five Years of the American Society of Biological Chemists (New Haven, 1945). In addition Chittenden wrote a number of biographical memoirs of deceased colleagues prepared for the National Academy of Sciences.

A complete bibliography of Chittenden’s papers may be found in the memoir by the present writer in Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, XXIV (Washington, D.C., 1945), 95–104. His manuscript auto-biography is deposited in the Historical Manuscripts Room of the Yale University Library.

Hubert Bradford Vickery