Mall, Franklin Paine

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(b. Belle Plaine, Iowa, 28 September 1862; d. Baltimore, Maryland, 17 November 1917)

anatomy, embryology, physiology.

Mall was the only son of Franz Mall, a farmer born at Solingen, Germany; his mother, the former Louise Christine Miller, was also a native of Germany and died when he was ten years old. He attended a local academy, where an able teacher awakened his interest in science. In 1880, at the age of eighteen, Mall began medical studies at the University of Michigan, where he had three stimulating teachers: Corydon L. Ford, professor of anatomy, a superb lecturer but not an original investigator; Victor C. Vaughan, biochemist and bacteriologist; and Henry Sewall, physiologist. William J. Mayo, later a famous surgeon, was a classmate.

Influenced, no doubt, by Vaughan and Sewall, who had gone to Germany for scientific training, Mall, after taking the in 1883, went to Heidelberg with the intention of becoming a specialist in ophthalmology. Finding himself more interested in anatomical research than in the practice of medicine, he went in 1884 to Leipzig, where he became a student of Wilhelm His, the greatest embryologist of the time, who admitted him to close association in the laboratory and became a lifelong friend and adviser. During the same year Mall met another American postgraduate student, William H.Welch, who later, as dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, invited Mall to be its first professor of anatomy. After completing a study of the development of the thymus gland (which, incidentally, contradicted earlier work by His), Mall moved, on the advice of His, to the laboratory of Carl Ludwig at Leipzig. Ludwig set for the young Mall a study of the structure of the small intestine, which he accomplished with such skill and breadth of view as to win the admiration of Ludwig, who personally saw Mall’s monograph through the press after the latter left for America in 1886.

Welch, who had returned to America some years earlier, had organized a department of pathology at the Johns Hopkins Hospital preliminary to the creation of a school of medicine. Mall applied to him for a post and was given the first fellowship in the new laboratory. He remained there for three years, studying the structure of the stomach and intestines from both the anatomical and the physiological standpoints, partly in collaboration with the surgeon William S.Halsted. he also studied the microscopic structure of connective tissue by highly original methods. On the basis of his description Halsted developed the method of suturing the intestine in surgical operations that is known by his name.

Because Mall’s position with Welch was not permanent, he was much concerned about his future, opportunities for full-time medical research and teaching being very limited at that time; but in 1889 he was offered an adjunct professorship of anatomy at Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, then being organized by the psychologist G.Stanley Hall. The appointment seemed to offer Mall an opportunity to develop anatomical research and to put the teaching of that subject on as high a scientific basis as in Germany; the prevalent approach in American schools was that of didactic instruction, serving only as preparation for surgery. He remained at Clark University for three years, until the faculty’s growing dissatisfaction with Hall’s administration led to the departure of several young professors, Mall going to the University of Chicago as professor of anatomy at its school of medicine. While at Clark, however, his research led to an important discovery, that of the vasomotor nerves of the portal vein. At this time also Mall constructed a model of an early human embryo by the born wax-plate method, the first to be made in America, and thus began the program of embryological research on which his reputation is chiefly based.

Mall remained in Chicago only one year, for in 1893, when Johns Hopkins University opened its long-planned school of medicine with Welch as dean, Mall was called to head its department of anatomy. Free to plan instruction without constraint of tradition Mall at once began to reform the teaching of anatomy in the United States by giving few lectures while providing his students full opportunity to learn for themselves by dissection, with the aid of textbooks and atlases and the advice of instructors engaged in research. Mall designed and maintained quiet and scrupulously clean small laboratory rooms in place of the large dissecting halls of the older schools; he also insisted on accurate work, familiarity with the literature of the field, and scientific rather than purely practical aims. The same principles were applied to the teaching of microscopic anatomy and neurology, conducted largely by his staff. The members of his staff were given full freedom to direct their own researches under his lightly imposed leadership, that of an older, more experienced fellow student rather than a taskmaster. The success of Mall’s methods is demonstrated by the fact that they were carried to a score of other universities by those of his pupils and assistants who became professors of anatomy, and many physicians and medical teachers found in his laboratory an intellectual awakening and a stimulus to become independent scientific investigators. Outstanding researchers who worked with him were Ross G.Harrison, Florence R.Sabin, George L. Streeter, Warren H.Lewis, and Herbert M. Evans.

In 1894 Mall married Mabel Glover of Washington, D.C., one of the three women students in his first class at Johns Hopkins. They had two daughters.

Mall’s own investigations during the early years in Baltimore dealt chiefly with the structure of the spleen and the liver. His study of the very peculiar arrangement of blood vessels in the spleen underlies the current conception that this organ serves as a storage place for the blood. His work on the liver gave rise to two important generalizations with which he extended ideas of his teacher Wilhelm His. One of these states that the extremely thin tubular tissue (endothelium) of which the capillary blood vessels consist, and which forms the lining of the veins and arteries, is the primary structure of the vascular system and in the larger vessels is reinforced by muscle and connective-tissue cells. Studying the liver, Mall showed that organ to be made up of small structureal units each of which contains all the essential tissue elements—hepatic cells, blood vessels, and bile ducts, systematically arranged within the unit; and he demonstrated that the blood vessels supplying the units are so arranged as to distribute the blood equally to each of them. This concept of structural units was extended, by him and by some of his students, to other organs.

While a postgraduate student in Leipzig with Wilhelm His, Mall had begun to collect human embryos; and in Baltimore he continued to build up his collection. With this material he made valuable studies of the development of the intestinal canal, the body cavities, the diaphragm, and the abdominal walls. In 1910–1912 Mall collaborated with Franz Keibel of Freiburg in editing Handbook of Human Embryology, written by American and German experts. The two-volume work has not yet been superseded.

The growth of Mall’s collection of human embryos and their preparation for research use made so large a demand on the resources of his university department that in 1913 he appealed to the Carnegie Institution of Washington to create a department of embryology at the Johns Hopkins Medical School, to which he gave his collection, by that time the largest in the world. He led this laboratory until his death in 1917, holding its directorship as well as the Johns Hopkins chair of anatomy. The first six volumes of the Carnegie Contributions to Embryology were edited by mall with the highest standards of textual perfection and illustration. A comprehensive program of research laid down by him was continued and largely completed under his successor, George L. Streeter.

Mall’ service to anatomy and embryology beyond his own laboratory began in 1900, when, with Charles S. Minot of Harvard and George S. Huntington of Columbia University, he founded the American Journal of Anatomy and for eight years, with sound financial judgment, published it from his laboratory with one of his staff, Henry McElderry Knower, as managing editor. Mall and Minot also joined in 1900 in a successful effort to rejuvenate the American Association of Anatomists, which since its foundation in 1888 had represented the older, relatively unoriginal phase of anatomical study in the United States. Never putting himself forward in its organization, Mall was strongly influential in placing and keeping it on a high scientific level. As its president in 1906–1908 he overcame his reluctance, or inability, to speak in public and made the only formal address of his career, under the characteristically modest title “Some Points of Interest to Anatomists.”

As in the councils of his profession, so also in the Johns Hopkins University, Mall exerted a quiet but profound influence. His close friendship since his student days in Germany with William H. Welch, dean of the school of medicine and eloquent, magnetic leader of American medical education, gave Mall a channel for his ideas and a spokesman for the ideals they both cherished. Mall was the chief proponent of the so-called concentration system, under which the medical student’s time was no longer divided between several concurrently taught subjects but was allotted to not more than two subjects at a time, which were taken up for long periods, up to two trimesters. Thus the student received a thorough, uninterrupted conspectus of each subject. This system, begun at Johns Hopkins, was generally adopted by the American medical schools.

Mall was also a leader, in his inconspicuous way, in the highly controversial movement for full-time teachers of the clinical subjects, as opposed to use of medical practitioners devoting only part of their time to teaching. Full-time teaching of the preclinical sciences—anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and pathology—was well under way in the American schools by the turn of the century, as Mall’s appointment to the Johns Hopkins chair of anatomy shows; but the radical move for which he worked was to put the teaching of internal medicine, surgery, and the major specialties into the hands of able men freed from the necessity of earning their living by private practice and, as salaried professors, devoting their full time to teaching, research, and the care of patients in university hospitals. Mall had gotten the germ of this idea from Carl Ludwig at Leipzig and had discussed it during the early years of the Johns Hopkins Medical School. A former member of his staff, Lewellys F. Barker, first presented the plan publicly in an address at Chicago in 1903. Through Welch, who was at first lukewarm, a program for full-time clinical teaching at Johns Hopkins was drawn up in 1913 and implemented by a grant from the General Education Board of New York.

As the foregoing record has indicated, Mall possessed an unusual combination of far-reaching originality with shy reticence, of scientific detachment with shrewd business sense. He never overran his budget and always had a reserve on hand. He was wise in his selection of young men for his staff and highly successful in placing them, when they matured, in important positions. Admirably fair-minded, he was, however, intolerant of stupidity.

Mall’s disapproval of excessive lecturing in anatomical teaching was based not only on his pedagogical ideas but also on lack of talent for formal speaking before classes and scientific societies. When he did, rarely, speak to such groups, he was not outstandingly clear. On the other hand, he always had time for private discussions with students and staff members, in or out of classroom and laboratory. His remarks, however, were not always directly related to the topic of the conversation; they were often very whimsical and seemingly farfetched, but they always included a serious idea which the hearer might miss until after days or months he suddenly perceived what Mall had intended subtly to convey. Without the mediation of his ideas by Minot in the American Association of Anatomists, and in the larger affairs of medical education by Welch and by Abraham Flexner of the General Education Board and the Rockefeller Foundation, Mall would never have seen his reform projects carried out; but indirectly he influenced many pupils and associates to whom he addressed himself privately.


I. Original Works. The author of many scientific articles, Mall also was joint editor, with Franz Keibel, of Handbook of Human Embryology, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1910–1912), to which he contributed 3 chapters.

II. Secondary Literature. See “Memorial Services in Honor of Franklin Paine Mall, Professor of Anatomy, Johns Hopkins University, 1893 to 1917,” in Johns Hopkins Hospital Bulletin, 29 (1918), 109–123, with portrait and complete bibliography; and the following works by Florence R. Sabin: “Franklin Paine Mall, a Review of His Scientific Achievement,” in Science, n.s.47 (1918), 254–261; Franklin Paine Mall, the Story of a Mind (Baltimore, 1934), with portraits and selected bibliography; and “Franklin Paine Mall, 1862–1917,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 16 (1936), 65–122, with portrait and complete bibliography.

George W. Corner