Hunt, Reid

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(b. Martinsville, Ohio, 20 April 1870: d. Belmont, Massachusetts, 10 March 1948)


Hunt was the younger son of Milton L. Hunt, a banker, and Sarah E. Wright. Both of his parents, who were Quakers, had been schoolteachers and encouraged him in his educational goals. Hunt’s interest in science was acquired at an early age when he studied chemistry under the direction of the local pharmacist. After graduating from Martinsville High School at the age of sixteen, he spent a year at Wilmington College and a year at Ohio University. In 1888 Hunt transferred to the Johns Hopkins University, where he obtained his B.A. in 1891. The interest in physiology that he had developed during his undergraduate years led him to undertake graduate studies in that field at Hopkins under H. Newell Martin. Early in 1892 he went to Germany for medical studies at the University of Bonn. During this period his interest in pharmacology was aroused by the lectures of Carl Binz, professor of pharmacology. Hunt returned to Hopkins in the fall of 1892 to resume his graduate work in physiology under Martin and later under William H. Howell, receiving a Ph.D. in 1896. In the same year he obtained an M.D. from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Baltimore.

Hunt spent the next two years as a tutor in physiology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University. During the summers of 1898 and 1899, he accompanied expeditions of Columbia zoologists to Egypt and the Sudan in an attempt to obtain specimens of the African lungfish and its developmental stages. One of the party died of fever, and Hunt and another colleague were stricken. Neither expedition succeeded in obtaining a lungfish specimen.

In the fall of 1898, Hunt returned to Hopkins to become an associate in pharmacology under John J. Abel, the principal founder of modern American pharmacology. He was given the rank of associate professor of pharmacology in 1901. Although still officially connected with Johns Hopkins, Hunt spent much of his time during 1902 and 1903 in Germany, working in the Frankfurt laboratory of Paul Ehrlich, who exercised a strong influence on the direction of Hunt’s scientific work.

Hunt left Hopkins in 1904 to organize and head the newly created division of pharmacology of the Hygienic Laboratory, United States Public Health Service. In addition to his research Hunt was responsible for the testing and analysis of vaccines and antitoxins required under the 1902 Biologics Control Act. In 1913 he became professor and head of the pharmacology department at Harvard Medical School, a position he held until his retirement in 1936.

Though Hunt was tall and gave an impression of physical strength, he was basically a shy, modest individual who never sought the limelight. Research rather than teaching was his forte, and it was evidently with mixed feelings that he left government to return to a university post in 1913. Hunt had an impressive command of the medical literature that was widely recognized by his colleagues. He appears to have had few interests outside his work and home life, except for a love of travel. He married Mary Lillie Taylor on 12 December 1908; they had no children.

Hunt was one of the pioneers in the establishment of pharmacology as an independent discipline in the United States, a movement in which his mentor Abel played the pivotal role. He was the first secretary of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, founded in 1908, and one of the drafters of its constitution and bylaws. He later (1916–1919) served as president of the society. Hunt also applied his pharmacological knowledge in a number of other professional commitments. He served as a member of the American Medical Association’s Council on Pharmacy and Chemistry for thirty years (president 1927–1936); as president of the Committee of Revision for the United States Pharmacopeia (1920–1930); and as chairman of the Hunt Committee, an ad hoc board of scientists created by the United States secretary of agriculture in 1927 to determine tolerable levels of lead and arsenic on fruits sprayed with lead arsenate pesticide. Hunt was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1919.

One of Hunt’s most important research contributions was his study of the biological activity of choline compounds and its relationship to chemical structure. In Abel’s laboratory in 1899. Hunt had noted that suprarenal extracts free of epinephrine caused a lowering of blood pressure. He identified choline as one of the substances responsible, but recognized that it did not account for the full effect. Further work suggested that suprarenal extract might contain derivatives of choline more potent than choline itself.

Apparently influenced by Ehrlich’s structureactivity studies while in Frankfurt, Hunt later began to study the physiological action of a series of choline derivatives and analogues. His first publication on the subject (1906), with R. deM. Taveau, reported the extraordinary activity of one of these substances, acetylcholine. He was profoundly impressed by the fact that acetylcholine was 100, 000 times more active than choline in lowering blood pressure. The biological significance of this discovery became clear only in 1914. when Henry Dale and Otto Loewi identified the role of acetylcholine in chemical transmission of nerve impulses, work for which they received the Nobel Prize in 1936. Choline and analogous compounds continued to interest Hunt throughout his career, and a long series of papers on the subject issued from his laboratory, contributing to knowledge of the pharmacology of the autonomic nervous system and of structure-activity relationships in onium compounds.

Another important area of research that occupied a significant amount of Hunt’s time was the physiology and pharmacology of the thyroid gland. His interest in the subject stemmed from his work with Ehrlich on the toxicity of the nitriles. Based on the assumption that the toxicity of acetonitrile was due to a conversion to hydrocyanic acid by oxidation, Hunt reasoned that administration of thyroid gland should enhance the toxicity of acetonitrile by increasing basal metabolism. He found that this was indeed the case for rats and guinea pigs, but that mice reacted in the opposite way and became more resistant to acetonitrile. For two decades following the publication of his first paper on the subject (1905), Hunt used the “acetonitrile reaction” to study thyroid physiology and pharmacology. He was able to show that thyroid gland preparations have a physiological activity parallel to their iodine content, thus making it possible to standardize thyroid preparations by measuring the iodine content. He also demonstrated the influence of different diets on thyroid function.


I. Original Works. A good bibiography of Hunt’s publications appears on pp. 38–44 of the obituary by E.K. Marshall, Jr. (see below). A key paper reporting the biological activity of acetylcholine is “On the Physiological Action of Certain Cholin Derivatives and New Methods for Detecting Cholin,” in British Medical Journal (1906), 3 1788–1791, with R. deM. Taveau. See also “The Relation of Iodin to the Thyroid Gland,” in Journal of the American Medical Association, 49 (1907), 1823–1829 The Manuscripts Division of the Countway Library, Boston, holds one box of Hunt manuscript materials, including his lectures for a pharmacology course and some correspondence on professional matters.

II. Secondary Literature. The best biographical sketch is E.K. Marshall, Jr., “Reid Hunt, 1870–1948,” in Biographical Memoirs, National Academy of Sciences, 26 (1949), 25–44. Also useful is Otto Krayer, in Dictionary of American Biography, supp. IV. 410–412. Several obituaries are listed in the bibiography to the brief biographical article on Hunt in John Parascandola and Elizabeth Keeney, Sources in the History of American Pharmacology (Madison. Wis., 1983). 38–40. Hunt’s participation in the Hunt Committee is described in James Whorton. Before Silent Spring: Pesticides and Public Health in Pre-DDT America (Princeton, 1974), 154–160. On his role in the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, see K.K. Chen, ed., The American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, Incorporated: The First Sixty Year, 1908–1969 (Bethesda, Md., 1969).

John Parascandol

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