Cowdry, Edmund Vincent

views updated


(b. Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada, 18 July 1888;

d. 25 June 1975), cytology, gerontology, cancer research.

Cowdry is remembered in the historical record predominantly for his involvement in founding the discipline of gerontology in the United States in the 1930s. He was also involved in the worldwide spread and popularization of the idea of the scientific study of aging as a distinct scientific and medical field. However, his long career and prolific writings played a role in many fields of twentieth-century life sciences, including cytology, eugenics, bacteriology, and cancer research. Scientific posterity tends to reward discoverers of objects and processes but leaves little room for those scientists who play an important organizational, administrative, or editorial role in the production of scientific knowledge. Cowdry was one such synthesizing figure, repeatedly bringing many diverse researchers and their work together into new configurations. His facilitation of major meetings, resulting in many edited volumes in numerous editions, served as points of consolidation and mobilization in several areas of twentieth-century life science.

Microscopic Morphology . Cowdry was born in 1888 in the small Canadian town of Fort Macleod, Alberta. He attended the University of Toronto, graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1909, and then moved to Chicago to pursue graduate work in anatomy. Cowdry’s dissertation, “The Relations of Mitochondria and Other Cytoplasmic Constituents in Spinal Ganglion Cells of the Pigeon,” completed and published in 1912, established his expertise in microscopic morphology and his lifelong interest in mitochondria. After receiving his PhD in 1913, Cowdry was appointed as an associate in anatomy at Johns Hopkins University. In 1917 he became a professor of anatomy at the Peking Union Medical College established in Beijing, China, by the Rockefeller Foundation. In 1921 Cowdry became an associate member at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York. Before the era of formalized postdoctoral training, this kind of appointment was an important career step for young biologists, and it was formative for Cowdry. Simon Flexner, the director of the Rockefeller Institute at that time, was interested in recruiting anatomists not with an interest in traditional morphological description, but with skills applicable to researching the cellular basis of pathologies.

The application of cytology to questions of physiology and pathology opened a chapter of Cowdry’s career that was dedicated to the study of disease mechanisms at the level of the cell. Under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation, he made several research trips to Africa. Microscopic morphology here served the purpose of identifying the organism and mechanism of infection of heart-water, a common disease affecting goats, sheep, and cows (which later also became known as cowdriosis). In South Africa, he observed inclusion bodies in the nuclei of kidney cells of affected animals. When these nuclear inclusions were isolated and injected into ticks, animals bitten by the ticks subsequently developed the disease, a classic demonstration of Robert Koch’s postulates for identification of the cause of disease. It was also the first demonstration of a rickettsial infection outside of the human body. Cellular morphologies associated with infection are still identified with Cowdry’s name, Cowdry type A and type B inclusion bodies. He also traveled to Tunisia to study the etiology of malaria, and to Kenya to study yellow fever.

During the 1920s, Cowdry pursued research into cellular morphology, for example, publishing a detailed description of the secretory cells of the kidney tubules, and continuing his interest in cellular organelles such as the mitochondria, which he felt had been neglected in relation to the cell nucleus. He explored the use of vital stains, rather than fixatives that killed the cell, as a means to observe the mitochondria, whose role in the life of the cell was at that time unclear. Importantly, he also began what would become a lifelong habit of editing volumes that gathered the more specialized work of eminent scientists together into a text that could serve as a textbook or handbook for a wider audience. More than simply a propensity for the role of editor, Cowdry saw this work as a strike against overspecialization in the life sciences, which he thought was resulting in the loss of knowledge that fell between the narrow areas of individual specialization. Furthermore, he thought that students were being increasingly faced with the need to choose and specialize without even gaining an appreciation of the larger picture. Cowdry’s introductions to many of these volumes reflect these sentiments.

Cytology Textbooks . Cowdry’s edited volumes, beginning with General Cytology: A Textbook of CellularStructure and Function for Students of Biology and Medicine in 1924, drew on well-known scientists with particular expertise in one aspect of the subject at hand. Taken individually, these contributions would be quite narrow, but together they constituted an overview of the contemporary state of knowledge and research in a field that could be used by students and scientists as a textbook or handbook. General Cytology, for example, is an interesting contrast to the third edition of a classic textbook of the cell, The Cell in Development and Heredity (1925), by Edmund B. Wilson, first published in 1896. The single-authored authoritative overview was becoming harder and harder to do as the number of scientists and the production of literature in the life sciences increased, and in Cowdry’s volume, Wilson is just one contributor among thirteen authors. While Wilson’s book still looked back to European scientists and literature, particularly in theoretical debates about the cell’s role in development and heredity, Cowdry’s looked resolutely and inclusively at present-day work in progress, attempting to survey the leading edge of current knowledge in the field in the United States; the authors (including Cowdry himself, who contributed a chapter as well as editing the volume) represented the elite of American biology at that time.

Access to and participation in this elite was afforded by Cowdry’s place at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research; his lack of training at a European university and his travels to Africa and China set him apart from just one earlier generation of American biologists, most of whom went through an obligatory graduate or postgraduate stint in a European laboratory. Contributors such as Thomas Morgan (1866–1945) and Frank Rattray Lillie (1870– 1947) were in their own right central to developments in early twentieth-century life sciences, but here their individual perspectives were subsumed to the greater project of providing multiple entries on the study of the cell. Importantly, new biochemical and genetic approaches were introduced that presented the cell as a research object open to a wide variety of experimental questions, from the nature of membranes to the more classic questions of mechanisms of division and differentiation. General Cytology, resulting from a meeting of the contributing authors at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in 1922, was thus a snapshot of American biology—and cytology in particular—at this time: rapidly expanding and fragmenting beyond the purview of any one scientist.

General Cytology was supplemented in 1928 by Special Cytology: The Form and Functions of the Cell in Health and Disease, again subtitled A Textbook for Students of Biology and Medicine. Cowdry’s own interest in working with the cell as a living subject rather than the dead stained one of classical anatomy and histology is evident in his selection of authors; for example, he solicited two chapters by practitioners of the relatively new technique of tissue culture, in which small pieces of tissue from complex animals were cultured outside of the body such that the living populations of cells could be grown and observed in vitro for prolonged periods. Alexis Carrel (1873–1944), then a senior figure at the Rockefeller Institute, was one of these contributors. Carrel put a great deal of emphasis on the dependency of the cell on the local particular conditions of the culture medium—mimicking the specific conditions in the body that any given cell occupied as part of a specialized tissue and organ with its own particular relationship to circulating body fluids. Indeed, Carrel claimed that frequent replacement of the culture medium around a cell culture could lead to the immortality of cells in culture. This focus on the interdependency of cellular form and function in specific local bodily conditions, and the study of the cell and its medium as an experimental system for the exploration of biological mechanisms of aging deeply influenced Cowdry’s own scientific thinking and writing in later years.

In 1928 Cowdry joined the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, as head of the cytology program and cochair of the Anatomy Department. He continued to receive Rockefeller Foundation funding for his cytology laboratory, and served on the Rockefeller Foundation Yellow Fever Commission. He would be based in St. Louis for the rest of his career, and became an American citizen in 1930. After his arrival in St. Louis, Cowdry began his involvement in American science at the national level, with his appointment in 1930 as chairman of the Division of Medical Sciences of the National Research Council. He also continued to display great editorial zeal, in 1930 coordinating the volume Human Biology and Racial Welfare, which promised to break down the barriers between specialized sciences “which have a definite bearing on human welfare and are referred to collectively as ‘human biology.’” This volume was an effort to collect scientific studies of human biology that could serve as a basis for enhancing human progress, and was directed at a lay audience. The contributions ranged from Cowdry’s own mild claim that human biology and therefore human well-being should not just be studied in the abstract, but should focus concretely on “the vital unit” of the cell—because that is where disease mechanisms (and therapies) such as the relationship between diabetes and insulin were to be found—to the most starkly eugenic writings of figures such as Edwin Grant Conklin and Charles Davenport. As with the earlier Cytology volumes, Cowdry clearly had the connections and standing to call on the elite figures of the American life sciences for contributions. Cowdry’s social and scientific network, just at this historical point of the ascendancy of eugenics in American science, is reflected in this collection. However, this volume departed from the earlier ones in the broadness of its scope, crossing not just the subspecialties of biology and medicine, but including contributions from social scientists as well.

Arteriosclerosis and Aging Research . In his role as chairman of the Division of Medical Sciences of the National Research Council, Cowdry was approached for advice in 1931 by Ludwig Kast, first president of the Josiah Macy, Jr., Foundation, just as the foundation was formulating its first project to address processes of aging and degenerative changes. After wide consultation, Cowdry and the Macy Foundation decided to tackle this broader subject by first examining arteriosclerosis, the hardening and thickening of arterial walls often associated with aging. Research on the topic was haphazard, and Cowdry was attracted to the idea of coordinating various specialists to work as a team on formulating not just the state of the field, but also the research questions in need of exploration. Arteriosclerosis: A Survey of the Problem, edited by Cowdry, was published in 1933, and contained the contributions of twenty-three experts offering in-depth, discipline-specific assessments of research into the disease. The stamp of Cowdry’s earlier participation in Rockefeller Institute–coordinated efforts to understand infectious disease in Africa is clear; in the introduction to Arteriosclerosis, he wrote that the volume “brings to bear upon a chronic disease that kind of team work which has proved such an effective instrument in the investigation of acute infections” (p. ix). The volume had a unifying effect on research in the field in the practical sense of putting all the diverse approaches in one handbook, but also in the less tangible sense of making arteriosclerosis into a distinct disease to be researched like any other—analogous to infectious diseases whose causes had been isolated and for which therapies and vaccines had successfully been developed—and not an amorphous and inevitable process of change in the aging body.

In 1935, at Cowdry’s own urging, the Macy Foundation asked him to take the same approach to the larger topic of aging itself. Interest in the scientific study of aging was spurred in part by the perception of old age as a pressing social problem in the wake of the Great Depression and the institution of the Social Security Act of 1935. Cowdry invited a wide range of specialists to a meeting at Woods Hole in 1937. With the additional support of the Union of American Biological Societies (of which he was then president) and the National Research Council, Cowdry aimed to turn attention to the fact that while the problems of growth, “the upswing of the curve of vital processes” were being energetically tackled, the problems of aging and the downswing of the curve toward death were by contrast “shamefully neglected” (“Woods Hole Conference on the Problems of Aging,” Scientific Monthly45 [1937]: 189–191). The pattern set by Cowdry’s earlier projects was repeated here: individuals well known for their specific contribution to narrow areas within the proposed topic were invited to come together, exchange views and manuscripts, and then contribute to an edited volume. As with Human Biology and Racial Welfare, the conference attendees and chapter authors were not limited to the biological sciences. Cowdry tapped John Dewey, a Macy Foundation board member and extremely well-known philosopher and educator, to write the introduction to the volume Problems of Aging, published in 1939. In an introduction that could easily have been penned in the early twenty-first century, Dewey commented that biological processes condition social life, and social contexts shape biological life, and the specificities of this biological and social interaction were the heart of the “problem” of aging.

This perspective was reflected in the book’s makeup, which considered aging in plants, animals, insects, and humans, and included clinical, psychological, and anthropological research alongside the physiology and biology of the aging body. Moreover, the specificity of some of the chapters, concerning, for example, the skin, the eye, or lymphatic tissue, reflected the tenor of Cowdry’s own contribution, “Ageing of Tissue Fluids,” which emphasized the importance of local tissue-fluid interactions in any given process of senescence. Referring back to his editorial work on Arteriosclerosis, Cowdry wrote that this book showed “unmistakably that the burden of years is not evenly felt by blood vessels of all sorts” (Cowdry, 1939, p. 665). Both the susceptibility to aging and the speed of senescent processes were heterogeneous within the same body. In short, any adequate survey or broad understanding of a general subject such as aging had to start with the local particularities and work up to synthesis, just as he had argued years before that any understanding of human welfare had to begin with specific details of cellular life and disease.

Individual authors disagreed about the specific nature of the “problem” of aging, in particular whether old age resulted from distinct degenerative diseases and was therefore purely pathological, or if it was a more systemic and normal process of aging. Nonetheless, this volume marks a founding event for the discipline of gerontology; it gathered scholarship discussing aging in a coherent fashion as a distinct scientific problem, and was legitimated by the backing of philanthropic and government organizations and the stamp of famous individual contributors. The formation of a scientific field did not stop at a meeting and a book; Cowdry also served as the second chairman of the Club for Research on Ageing, initially made up of the original participants, with regular reunions funded by the Macy Foundation. In 1945 several members of this club formed the Gerontological Society, whose aim was to publish a journal to distribute research findings to a wider audience. Cowdry also became the president of the

International Association of Gerontology, and the principal organizer of the Second International Gerontological Congress in 1951. In 1958 he chaired a meeting on aging in Los Angeles and edited a book with contributions from participants on the subject of the medical care of elderly people, The Care of the Geriatric Patient, which was translated into Spanish and appeared in revised editions for many decades. Later in his life he worked to popularize the kind of work that resulted from the field of gerontology, writing a popular book titled Aging Better (1972). He also campaigned locally and vociferously with the university administration about inadequate pensions forcing his retired colleagues to live in penury.

Cancer Research . Cowdry’s short autobiographical notes contain the offhand comment that his wife Alice once asked him why he did not work on something important, such as cancer; as a result, he wrote, he had labored with a split personality between cancer research and aging. This is perhaps an understatement, because he also continued to contribute to the formation of the basic practice of cytology as well. In 1934 he wrote A Textbook of Histology: Functional Significance of Cells and Intercellular Substances with characteristic emphasis not just on cells and their morphology, but their dynamic existence in relation totheir structural and fluid milieu. The production of detailed handbooks continued in 1943 with Microscopic Technique in Biology and Medicine; both of these texts continued to be reissued in multiple editions, and contributed to the training of countless students of biology and medicine, and were translated into Chinese and Russian. Cowdry’s activities in cancer research were both local, involving his own laboratory, and international, continuing his flair for large-scale meeting administration. In 1939 Cowdry became director of research for the Barnard Free Skin and Cancer Hospital in St. Louis, and in 1950 director of the Wernse Cancer Research Laboratory at the medical school. He organized the Fourth International Cancer Congress in St. Louis in 1947, and then served seven years as the U.S. representative on the International Cancer Research Commission established at the 1947 meeting. In 1951 and 1952 he was an advisor on cancer to the government of India, funded by a Truman administration initiative for international assistance to less-developed nations. In 1955 he wrote the monograph Cancer Cells, which combined his cytological experience with his personal and administrative work in cancer research.

The papers of Edmund Vincent Cowdry are held at the Bernard Becker Medical Library of Washington University in St. Louis, and reflect the remarkably energetic and productive life of a scientist who excelled at organizing groups of scientists to consolidate and invigorate the research fields of cytology, aging, and cancer. His career reflects the influence of philanthropic organizations on the life sciences in the first half of the twentieth century and the growth of government funding for biomedical research after World War II. Another key to understanding Cowdry’s career lies in several popular pieces he wrote in the 1930s about the analogy to be drawn between the cells of the body and the citizens of a nation, including an unpublished manuscript called “Citizen Cells: How Cells Manage Their Social Problems.” Thoroughly convinced that like cells, individuals could be more than the sum of their parts if organized properly, he worked ceaselessly to bring scientists, medical practitioners, and social scientists together across disciplinary divides and international borders to generate new collaborative work. In an age of increasing specialization, he contributed his own particular observations and experiments to the science of cells, but he also remained a committed generalist, working ceaselessly to keep broad overviews of science and its techniques in plain view for practitioners and students.



Editor. General Cytology: A Textbook of Cellular Structure and Function for Students of Biology and Medicine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1924.

Editor. Special Cytology: The Form and Functions of the Cell in Health and Disease: A Textbook for Students of Biology and Medicine. New York: Hoeber, 1928.

Editor. Human Biology and Racial Welfare. New York: Hoeber, 1930.

Editor. Arteriosclerosis: A Survey of the Problem. New York: Macmillan, 1933.

A Textbook of Histology: Functional Significance of Cells and Intercellular Substances. Philadelphia: Lea and Febiger, 1934.

Editor. Problems of Aging; Biological and Medical Aspects. Baltimore, MD: Williams and Wilkins, 1939.

Microscopic Technique in Biology and Medicine. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1943.

Cancer Cells. Philadelphia: Saunders, 1955.

Editor. The Care of the Geriatric Patient. St. Louis, MO: Mosby, 1958.

Etiology and Prevention of Cancer in Man. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1968.

Aging Better. Springfield, IL: Charles Thomas, 1972.


Achenbaum, W. Andrew. Crossing Frontiers: Gerontology Emerges as a Science. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Freeman, Joseph T. “Edmund Vincent Cowdry, Creative Gerontologist: Memoir and Autobiographical Notes.” Gerontologist 24 (1984): 641–645.

Katz, Stephen. Disciplining Old Age: The Formation of Gerontological Knowledge. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996.

Maienschein, Jane. “Cytology in 1924.” In The Expansion of American Biology, edited by Keith Benson, Jane Maienschein, and Ronald Rainger, 23–51. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

Hannah Landecker