Isaacs, Charles Edward

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Isaacs, Charles Edward

(b. Bedford, New York, 24 June 1811; d. Brooklyn, New York, 16 June 1860)


Isaacs was the first American to do work in experimental kidney physiology. By use of painstaking techniques in these researches Isaacs settled the controversy concerning the connection of the Malpighian bodies with the uriniferous tubules of the kidneys (until then strongly maintained by Bowman and as strenuously denied by Müller, Hyrtl, and others), and ingeniously demonstrated the presence of nucleated cells on the surface of the Malpighian tuft, as well as the selective ability of the Malpighian tuft to separate many products of the urine from the blood. He introduced into the intestinal tract dyes which were absorbed into the blood; he was thus able to demonstrate conclusively that the Malpighian bodies separated these coloring matters from the blood, excreting them into the urine.

He was the youngest of four children of William and Mary Isaacs; his father, a merchant and farmer, died when Charles was only seven. Educated at a parish school run by Samuel Holmes, he could read Latin and Greek by the age of twelve and became fluent as well in French and German. With a Dr. Belcher, a relative living in New York City, as his preceptor, Isaacs attended his first course of medical lectures at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New York. He then entered the office of John J. Graves, at that time one of the editors of the New York Medical Journal; with Graves he moved to Baltimore about 1831, where he graduated M.D. from the University of Maryland in 1833. Moving to North Carolina soon afterward, Isaacs was appointed surgeon to the Cherokee Indians when they were removed to the West, and traveled with them through the southern states to their place of relocation west of the Mississippi. He entered the army in 1841 but resigned in 1845 to join William H. Van Buren’s private medical school on Greene Street in New York City. Two years later he joined his friend T. G. Catlin in private practice for six months in Youngstown, New York; he then accepted the position of deputy health officer on Staten Island, New York, but remained for only a month before rejoining Catlin.

In September 1848, Isaacs was appointed demonstrator of anatomy at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New York City, where he remained for several years. He next moved to the University Medical College of New York City as demonstrator and adjunct professor of anatomy. By serving between school terms as surgeon on transatlantic steamers he was able to visit anatomy departments of schools in Paris and other European cities. His last move, in 1857, was to Brooklyn, where he finally achieved financial success in practice and was invited to lecture on surgical anatomy at the Brooklyn City Hospital.

One of the founders of the New York Pathological Society, Isaacs served it as both vice-president and president. In 1850 he was elected a member of the New York Academy of Medicine; his papers on the structure and physiology of the kidney, presented to the Academy in 1856 and 1857, attracted worldwide attention for the first time to this important medical group. A monument to Isaacs’ patient industry and scientific zeal, they were the only papers considered worthy of publication by the Academy in that year; and following their publication they were acclaimed, translated, and republished in France by Brown- Séquard in the Journal de l’anatomie et de la physiologie normales, and in Germany by Karl Christian Schmidt.

In 1858 Isaacs served as one of the New York Academy of Medicine’s vice-president; after his death the Academy paid a striking tribute to his memory at a joint special meeting with the New York Pathological Society, at which Van Buren read a fine memoir. Isaacs was also a member of the Kings Country Medical Society; one of the surgeons to the Brooklyn City Hospital; and consulting surgeon to the Kings County Hospital, to the Sailor’s Snug Harbor seaman’s retreat on Staten Island, and to the Municipal Hospital on Blackwell’s (Welfare) Island. Having suffered from “malarious and camp exposure of military life” since his army days, he died unexpectedly from pleuropneumonia with renal complications.


I. Original Works. Isaacs’ “Researches Into the Minute Anatomy of the Kidney” were reported as an abstract of the proceedings of the New York Academy of Medicine in the New York Journal of Medicine, 3rd ser., 1 (1856), 60-64. His” Researches Into the Structure and Physiology of the Kidney, “in Transactions of the New York Academy of Medicine, 1 (1857), 377-435; and “On the Function of the Malpighian Bodies of the Kidney,” ibid., pp. 437-457, were critically reviewed in Schmidt’s Jahrbücher der in- und ausländischen gesamten Medizin, 96 (1857), 155-156, and 104 (1859), 3. Other publications by Isaacs are “Extent of the pleura Above the Clavicle,” in Transȧctions of the New York Academy of Medicine, 2 (1863), 3-19; and “Remarks on Chylous or Milky Urine,” ibid., pp. 77-96.

The Anatomical Remembrancer or Complete Pocket Anatomist, a pocket compendium, was originally published in London and republished with corrections and additions by Isaacs (New York, 1850 and many subsequent eds.). He also edited (with W. H. Van Buren) Claude Bernard and C. Huette’s Illustrated Manual of Operative Surgery and Surgical Anatomy, “adapted to the use of the American medical student” (New York, 1864).

II. Secondary Literature. See “The Late Charles E. Isaacs, M.D.” [editorial], in American Medical Times, 1 (1860), 26; Raymond N. Bieter, “Charles Edward Isaac:A Forgotten American Kidney Physiologist,” in Annals of Medical History, n.s. 1 (1929), 363-377, which reviews in detail Isaac’ papers on renal function and structure; and Joseph C. Hutchison, “An Address on the Life and Character of the late Charles Edward Isaac, M.D., Delivered to the Graduates of the Long Island College Hospital July 14, 1862,” in American Medical Monthly, 18 (1862), 81-97, the chief source for biographical information.

Samuel X. Radbill