Howell, William Henry

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Howell, William Henry

(b. Baltimore, Maryland, 20 February 1860; d. Baltimore, 6 February 1945)


William Henry Howell was the son of George Henry Howell and Virginia Teresa Magruder. His family on both sides had lived in southern Maryland since early colonial times, and the Magruders owned large farms in Prince Georges County, where he, and his three brothers and one sister spent their summers. He was educated in the public schools of Baltimore and in 1876 entered the Johns Hopkins University as an undergraduate, earning his A.B. in 1881 and Ph.D. in 1884. During these years Howell studied and instructed with H. Newell Martin, a noted British physiologist. His dissertation, entitled “The Origin of the Fibrin Formed in the Coagulation of Blood,” was the forerunner of that research in his later years with which he made his greatest contributions to science and medicine.

In the ensuing nine years Howell taught physiology at Johns Hopkins (associate professor, 1889), the University of Michigan (professor, 1889–1892), and Harvard (associate professor, 1892). In 1893 he was recalled to Baltimore to be the first professor of physiology in the new Johns Hopkins Medical School. He served also as dean of the Medical Faculty from 1899 to 1911. In 1917, with William H. Welch, he organized the School of Hygiene and Public Health and became its director from 1926 to 1931. For three years thereafter he was chairman of the National Research Council, then retired to his laboratory at Johns Hopkins to continue his research until two days before his sudden death.

Howell was internationally known in the early years of the twentieth century as America’s outstanding physiologist. At the age of twenty-seven he had been one of the founders of the American Physiological Society, and from 1905 to 1910 he served as its president. He attended many physiological congresses in Europe as the American representative on the International Committee of Physiologists and was elected to preside at the first International Physiological Congress in the United States in 1929. He received many honorary degrees both in the United States and abroad, including an M.D. from the University of Michigan and an LL.D. from the University of Edinburgh. He was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Sciences, and an honorary member of the London Physiological Society.

Howell’s early contributions to physiology dealt with the circulatory system, nerve tissue, and the components of the blood. In his publications the laboratory techniques are presented in clear and meticulous detail, and the conclusions are stated with care and clarity. These attributes of his research—patience, precision, and clarity—remained characteristic of all his work, his teaching, and his writing. During his years at the Johns Hopkins Medical School Howell returned to studies of the coagulation of the blood. He was able to isolate thrombin (1910) and gave careful directions for its preparation. In 1918 he discovered the anticoagulant heparin, which he prepared from the liver and later attempted to analyze chemically. In his last years of research he proved the theory that blood platelets are formed in the lungs and was able to isolate thromboplastin in a form pure enough to be used in vivo. During thirty years of his work he was assisted in the laboratory by one or more members of a family of hemophiliacs, who were always loyal to his studies.

In the field of teaching Howell’s best-known contribution was his Textbook of Physiology, which was first published in 1905 and went through fourteen editions. To two generations of medical students the textbooks presented physiology with the clarity, simplicity, and charm that characterized all his writing. Perhaps most delightful for the reader are Howell’s special lectures: “The Cause of the Heart Beat” (Harvey Lecture, 1906), “The Coagulation of the Blood” (Harvey Lecture, 1916), “The Problem of Coagulation” (Pasteur Lecture, 1925), and “Hemophilia” (Carpenter Lecture, 1939).

Howell was a dedicated and able administrator, and many of his speeches contain very bold and thoughtful suggestions concerning the premedical and medical curricula of the day. He made a strong plea in 1912 for standardization of medical education throughout the country. Many of these ideas have since been adopted.

As a person, Howell was softspoken and devoted to his wife, Anne Janet Tucker, whom he married in 1887, his son and two daughters, and his eight grandchildren. He was an excellent tennis player, a good golfer, and an avid sailor. He was warmly admired by colleagues, students, and friends, and his career spanned the period in which American medicine, in a really modern sense, came of age.


I. Original Works. Howell’s numerous writings include “The Origin of the Fibrin Formed in the Coagulation of Blood,” in Studies From the Biological Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University”, 3 (1884), 63–71; “A Physiological, Histological, and Clinical Study of the Degeneration and Regeneration in Peripheral Nerve Fibres After Severance of Their Connection With the Nerve Centers,” in Journal of Physiology, 13 (1892), 335–406, written with G. C. Huber; “An Analysis of the Influence of the Sodium, Potassium, and Calcium Salts of the Blood on the Automatic Contraction of the Heart Muscle,” in American Journal of Physiology, 6 (1901), 181–206; Textbook of Physiology for Medical Students and Physicians, 14 eds. (Philadelphia, 1905–1940); “The Cause of the Heart Beat,” in Journal of the American Medical Association, 46 (1906), 1665, 1749, the Harvey Lecture; “The Coagulation of Blood,” in Cleveland Medical Journal, 9 (1910), 118; “The Preparation and Properties of Thrombin Together With Observations on Antithrombin and Prothrombin, “in American Journal of Physiology, 26 (1910), 453–473; “The Condition of the Blood in Hemophilia, Thrombosis, and Purpura,” in Archives of Internal Medicine, 13 (1914), 76–95; “Prothrombin,” in American Journal of Physiology, 35 (1914), 474–482; “The Coagulation of Blood,” in The Harvey Lectures, Series 12 (1916–1917), 273–324; “Two New Factors in Blood Coagulation, Heparin and Proantithrombin,” in American Journal of Physiology, 47 (1918), 328–341, written with E. Holt; “The Problem of Coagulation,” in Proceedings of the Institute of Medicine of Chicago (1925), Pasteur Lecture (reprint); “The Purification of Heparin and Its Presence in Blood,” in American Journal of Physiology, 71 (1926), 553–562; “The Purification of Heparin and Its Chemical and Physiological Reactions,” in Bulletin of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, 42 (1928), 199–206; “The Production of Blood Platelets in the Lungs,” in Journal of Experimental Medicine, 65 (1937), 177–203, written with D. D. Donahue; “The American Physiological Society During Its First Twenty-Five Years,” in History of the American Physiological Society Semicentennial, 1887–1937 (1938), p. 1; “Hemophilia,” in Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 2nd ser., 15 , no. 1 (1939), 3–26, the Wesley M. Carpenter Lecture; “The Isolation of Thromboplastin From Lung Tissue,” in Bulletin of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, 76 no. 6 (1945), 295–301.

II. Secondary Literature. See “The Celebration of the Sixtieth Anniversary of Dr. William H. Howell’s Graduation From the Johns Hopkins University,” in Bulletin of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, 68 , no. 4 (Apr. 1941), 291–308; and “An Anniversary Tribute to the Memory of the Late William Henry Howell,” ibid., 109 , no. 1 (July 1961), 1–19.

Anne Clark Rodman

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Howell, William Henry

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