Fulton, John Farquhar

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Fulton, John Farquhar

(b. St. Paul, Minnesota, 1 November 1899; d. New Haven, Connecticut, 28 May 1960)

physiology, history of medicine.

The son of an ophthalmologist who assisted in the founding of the University of Minnesota, Fulton graduated from St. Paul High School at the age of sixteen. His studies at the University of Minnesota were interrupted by a period of military service in World War I. Upon discharge he transferred to Harvard University, where he received the Bachelor of Science degree, magna cum laude,in 1921. That year, as a Rhodes Scholar, Fulton went to Oxford and was admitted to Magdalen College. There he met C. S. Sherrington, and in 1923, when he received an appointment as Christopher Welsh Scholar, he had the privilege of working in Sherrington’s laboratory. In the same year he married Lucia Pickering Wheatland. Fulton’s return to Harvard for medical training brought him into contact with Harvey Cushing, then at the zenith of his neurosurgical career. He was so attracted by Cushing’s clinical acumen and devotion that he spent a year working with him. This experience alerted the brilliant young physiologist to the possibility of using modern surgical techniques in the physiology laboratory in the analysis of the functions of the nervous system.

As a result, when he was appointed professor of physiology at Yale Medical School in 1929, Fulton organized the first primate laboratory for experimental physiology in America. His aim was to produce and analyze in higher primates such neurological syndromes as hemiplegia and ataxia. In operating rooms modeled after clinical neurosurgical theaters, he used his superb surgical skill on chimpanzees and orangutans, so that he might study the function of brains most closely resembling that of man. Stimulated by his enlightening analyses of spasticity and paralysis, would-be neurosurgeons, neurologists, and physiologists sought his laboratory for training and later became professors in universities in the United States and abroad. Perhaps Fulton’s major contribution to this program was his enthusiasm, which stimulated his associates to explore—from the historical, bibliographical, or investigational viewpoint the mysteries of the nervous system. Frequently this work was carried out more with his blessing than with his supervision, yet he was always eager to discuss and to integrate findings into the current neurological thinking, for his goal was to “aid those whose ultimate objective is the study of Clinical Medicine.” In spite of these activities Fulton found time to write the textbook, The Physiology of the Nervous System, which was translated into French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese, and Russian; and he founded, with J. G. Dusser de Barenne, the Journal of Neurophysiology, which he natured through its early years.

Early in his career Fulton became interested in the motor system. His contacts with Sherrington stimulated him to study the mechanisms of neuromuscular transmission, which he reported in a monograph entitled Muscular Contraction and the Reflex Control of Movement (1926). His subsequent investigations concerned the cortical and subcortical influence on the spinal motor pathways. He used the techniques of stimulation and ablation to demonstrate the changing role of the cerebrum in the ascending phylogenetic scale. Fulton showed the differential influence on movement of the postcentral, central, and precentral cortex. He believed that lesions of the motor cortex produced essentially a flaccid paresis and that the addition of premotor lesions introduced a spastic element. He showed that cerebellar hemispheral and vermal lesions had varying effects upon tone and motor performance, and demonstrated that the cerebral motor cortex compensated for cerebellar lesions.

With the outbreak of World War II, the activities of the primate laboratory at New Haven became centered on physiology, particularly in its medical applications to aviation. Fulton had a decompression chamber built in his laboratory and devoted much time to important research in this field.

Throughout his physiological career Fulton maintained a deep interest in the history of medicine. Perhaps this stemmed from his contacts at Oxford with Sherrington and the posthumous influence of William Osler and may have been fostered further by his close friendship with Harvey Cushing. Fulton was particularly interested in the lives of the men who developed new concepts in medicine. There is evidence of this fascination in the many biographical and bibliographical sketches he wrote. The culmination of this activity was his life of Harvey Cushing, which presents a well-documented and, in view of Fulton’s intimacy with Cushing, surprisingly well-balanced account.

With the aid of Cushing and Arnold Klebs, Fulton was able to establish a historical library for the Yale School of Medicine. It was to house the large collections of Cushing and Klebs and his own library. As his energies lessened because of impaired health, Fulton devoted more time to this hobby and less to the physiological laboratory. In 1951 he resigned as Sterling professor of physiology to become Sterling professor of the history of medicine and chairman of a newly created department of the history of medicine at Yale Medical School. He entered this new office with enthusiasm and developed graduate programs in the history of science and medicine.

The impact of Fulton’s contributions was recognized at home and abroad. For his scientific assistance in the Allied war effort, he received honors from the governments of France, Belgium, Rumania, and Cuba. He was also awarded honorary degrees by nine American and foreign universities.


I. Original Works Fulton’s writings include Muscular Contraction and the Reflex Control of Movement (Baltimore, Md., 1926); Selected Readings in the History of Physiology (Springfield, III., 1930); The Sign of Babinski. A Study of the Evolution of Cortical Dominance in Primates (Springfield, III., 1932), written with A. D. Keller; Physiology of the Nervous System (New York, 1938); and Harvey Cushing, A Biography (Springfield, III., 1946).

II. Secondary Liteature See H. E. Hoff, “The Laboratory of Physiology, in Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine28 (1955–1956), 165–167, with Fulton’s bibliography appended, 168–190. Obituaries are in Journal of Neurophysiology, 23 (1960), 347–349; Journal of Neurosurgery, 17 (1960), 1119–1123; Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 35 (1961), 81–86; and New England Journal of Medicine, 262 (1960), 1340–1341.

A. Earl Walker