Halliburton, William Dobinson

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(b. London, England, 21 June 1860: d. Exeter, England, 21 May 1931)


William Halliburton was the only son of Thomas Halliburton and his wife. Mary Homan. An attack of polio left his right arm paralyzed when he was very young, and this doubtless played its part in the course of his future career, making it impossible for him to do clinical medicine. After being educated privately and at University College School in London, Halliburton enrolled as a medical student at University College in 1878. He qualified for a B.Sc. in physiology in 1879 and obtained membership in the Royal College of Physicians in 1883. He became an M.D. (with gold medal) in 1884. He succeeded Gerald Yeo as professor of physiology at King’s College, London. in 1889. and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society two years later. In 1896 he married Annie Dawes; they had no children. Halliburton was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1892, and he delivered both the Goulstonian Lectures (1893) and the Croonian Lecture (1901). Halliburton was elected to the secretaryship of the Royal Society. but this decision was later altered. The reason for this change of mind remains obscure; it might have been because the Royal Society wanted a secretary with a broader biological background. He received honorary LL.D. degrees from the universities of Aberdeen and Toronto. In 1923, he resigned his chair because of ill health.

It was early perceived that Halliburton was a founding influence on the discipline of biochemistry in Great Britain. Frederick Gowland Hopkins wrote in Halliburton’s obituary noticw: “He was the first in this country by his works and his writing to secure for biochemistry general recognition and respect.” On his retirement Halliburton was elected the first honorary member of the British Biochemical Society. an honor that was not extended again until fifteen years later, to Arthur Harden.

Halliburton’s education at University College and its medical school coincided almost precisely with a period of resurgence of British physiology in London and in Cambridge. Its leading spirits were Michael Foster. John Burdon-Sanderson, and Halliburton’s mentor, Edward Albert Schäfer (later Sharpey-Schäfer). During the decade 1880 to 1890 the preclinical faculty at University College was one of the most scientifically active in Britain. Halliburton became part of its gifted young elite, and he formed friendships with Sidney Martin, Victor Horsley, and Frederick Mott. All were to become leaders in their chosen spheres of scientific medicine.

Under Schäfer’s guidance, Halliburton began his physiological career by familiarizing himself with heat fractionation, a new technique for protein separation. Such developments brought “old” physiological issues within the ambit of “newer” chemical investigations. In the hands of Ernst Schulze and Heinrich Ritthausen, separation techniques were a fresh impetus to investigation of protein composition and heterogeneity.

In 1887 Halliburton published a major paper on muscle proteins that secured his reputation not only in Britain but on the Continent as well, adding to Wilhelm Kühne’s works on muscle contraction of 1859 and 1864, Kühne had obtained “myosin” from muscle plasma, the fluid that can be pressed from fresh muscle. Halliburton, using heat fractionation, claimed to show that the myosin could be further separated into two proteins that he called paramyosinogen and myosin, He also showed that muscle plasma coagulates more rapidly if an extract of muscle prepared in the same way as fibrin ferment from blood is added, Finck has drawn attention to Halliburton’s having, in these experiments, actually prepared the second myofibrillar protein, actin, and with it having precipitated a much less soluble complex, actomyosin.

In a series of follow-up papers Halliburton attempted to apply these techniques to differentiated animal tissues. By studying kidney, liver, and other tissues, he tried to assess the relationship between the functions of different organs and the various proteins found in the cells of each tissue. With Frederick Mott, Halliburton turned to research in the chemical pathology of the nervous system and of mental illness, showing that choline is produced in true nerve degeneration but not in functional diseases such as neurasthenia, depression, and hysteria.

Throughout his career Halliburton attempted to consolidate the status of chemical physiology in England by encouraging the research of others. In 1898 King’s College spent £20, 000 to improve its anatomy and physiology departments, including greatly expanded facilities for chemical physiology. As a result more people became involved in the field, although the department maintained its conservative continuity with medical practice and problems.

Among Halliburton’s early research students was Christine Tebb, one of the first female biochemists. In 1907, while working under Halliburton, she showed that protagon, a substance that was claimed to represent a basic component of brain cells, was in fact an unresolved mixture of other biochemicals. She later married Otto Rosenheim, another scientist who was strongly influenced by being in Halliburton’s physiology department but who, as a chemist, brought different attitudes to his work.

After the turn of the century. as Halliburton’s own research career waned, he continued to influence younger workers to move toward biochemistry, an increasing number of whom were trained in chemistry. For example, Jack Drummond, professor of biochemistry at University College, London, from 1922 to 1945, came to Halliburton’s department as chemical assistant in 1913. R.T. Hewlett, later professor of bacteriology at King’s College, London, and Charles J. Martin, later director of the Lister Institute for Preventive Medicine, learned from Halliburton to apply chemistry to bacteriological problems.

Within his own subject, Halliburton moved cautiously from physiology into the newer, unexplored area of biochemistry but returned to physiology for his overall perspective on the new science. Nevertheless, his emphasis on chemical separation and resolution marks him as an important and transitional figure in the development of British biochemistry.


I. Original Works. “On Muscle-Plasma,” in Journal of Physiology, 8 (1887), 133–202: A Textbook of Chemical Physiology and Pathology (London, 1891); Essentials of Chemical Physiology (London, 1893; 13th ed., 1936); “On the Chemical Physiology of the Animal Cell,” in British Medical Journal (1893), 501–506, 512–517, 627–632, the Goulstonian lectures: The Chemical Side of Nervous Activity (London, 1901). the Croonian lecture: and Biochemistry of Muscle and Nerve (London, 1904), with a selected bibliography of Halliburton’s most important scientific papers.

Halliburton took over William Senhouse Kirkes’s Hand-book of Physiology (1st ed., London, 1848), beginnig in 1896 and continuing until his death. The last edition to bear his name was The Handbook of Physiology and Biochemistry (37th ed., London. 1942). written with R.J.S. McDowall, who subsequently took over the project.

The Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicin, London, has forty-eight notebooks of medical lecture notes and early laboratory notes. The Wellcome Contemporary Archive Collection has correspondence on Halliburton’s troubled election as secretaryof the Royal Society in 1903.

II. Secondary Literature. J.A.H. obituary in Biochemical Journal, 26, pt. I (1932), 269–271; Frederick G. Hopkins, in British Medical Journal, 1 (1931), 1006, and Lancet 1 (1931), 1263; R.J.S. McDowall, obituary in British Medical Journal, 1 (1931), 975–958; and Neil D. Morgan. “William Dobinson Halliburton FRS (1860– 1931), Pioneer of British Biochemistry.” in Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 38 (1983), 129– 145.

Neil Morgan