Martin, Henry Newell

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(b. Newry, County Down, Ireland, 1 July 1848; d. Burley-in-Wharfedale, Yorkshire, England, 27 October 1896)


The son of a congregational minister and sometime schoolmaster, Martin was the oldest of twelve children. Tutored at home, he entered the Medical School of University College London at sixteen, while—as was customary—apprenticing himself to a local practitioner for clinical instruction.

The youthful Martin was particularly attracted by the teaching and example of Michael Foster, then physiology instructor at the Medical School; despite his long hours as apprentice physician, Martin soon mastered the subject sufficiently to win a place as Foster’s demonstrator. When Foster was called to Cambridge as praelector in physiology at Trinity College, Martin followed, receiving a sholarship at Christ’s College, where he was to place first in the natural science tripos. Martin also served as assistant to T. H. Huxley in the latter’s innovative biology course at the Royal College of Science, South Kensington. Under Huxley’s supervision, Martin performed the “chief labour” in writing A Course of Practical Instruction in Elementary Biology (1875). In the same year, Martin received the D.Sc. in physiology, the first ever granted at Cambridge. Still in his twenties, Martin was clearly one of England’s most promising young physiologists.

At the same time, D. C. Gilman, president of the projected Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, was hard at work in assembling a faculty equal to his hopes of establishing a truly research-oriented university in the United States. Huxley recommended Martin, who, after some negotiation, accepted the well-paid professorship. He was only twenty-eight.

Though Martin published only fifteen research papers in his abbreviated scholarly career, he did complete a series of significant investigations based on his success in surgically isolating a mammalian heart and perfusing it so as to create experimental situations in which he could evaluate the role of such variables as temperature, alcohol, and venous and arterial pressure in cardiac function. Martin was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on the basis of this work and in 1883 delivered the Society’s Croonian Lecture on the influence of temperature variation upon heart beat.

Martin’s institutional role was almost certainly more significant than his scientific work. When he arrived in Baltimore, only one other course in physiology was offered in the United States (by H. P. Bowditch at Harvard). Between 1876 and 1893 the Johns Hopkins University was to play a uniquely influential role in the establishment of a researchoriented scientific community in the United States. From his strategic position at the Hopkins, Martin was to exert a significant influence in this evolution, especially in the development of physiology. Although never a magnetic lecturer, Martin was a warm and successful graduate teacher and colleague; William T. Sedwick, William Councilman, Henry Sewall, George Sternberg, W. K. Brooks, and Martin’s successor at Hopkins, William H. Howells, were among his students or sometime associates. When the American physiological society was organized in 1887, six of the twenty-four founding members were Martin’s students. Not only did he create and sustain an atmosphere of scholarship in his own laboratory, but Martin also consistently advocated the need for basic science excellence in the John Hopkins projected medical school, which opened in 1893. Although of necessity he taught general biology and animal morphology, Martin though consistently in disciplinary terms; he never lost sight of his identity as a physiologist, and he was deeply committed to establishing the independence of physiology from the needs and attitudes of clinical medicine.

Martin was not only active in the founding and early years of the American Physiological Society, but served on the editorial board of Foster’s Journal of Physiology—even managing to wring a small subvention for it from the Johns Hopkins administration. In addition he edited and founded Studies from the Biological Laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University, five volumes of which appeared between 1877 and 1893.

Martin was also a defender of the university against the attacks of antivivisectionists and spokesmen of religious orthodoxy disturbed by the encroachments of evolutionary naturalism. A fortunate marriage to Hattie Pegram, the socially prominent widow of a Confederate officer, allowed him greater access to Baltimore society, and thus to serve more effectively as an advocate of the university. The young physiologist even offered a Saturday morning course in physiology for local teachers and normal school students. In the early 1890’s Martin’s health began to fail and in 1893 he resigned. With a small pension from the Hopkins trustees, he returned to England in an effort to restore his health. Despite attempts to continue working at Cambridge, Martin’s health did not improve and he died in 1896.


There is no full-scale biography of Martin. The Daniel Coit Gilman Papers at the Johns Hopkins University Library contain a good many Martin letters illuminating his years at Hopkins.

For briefer sketches of Martin’s work, see C. S. Breathnach, “Henry Newell Martin (1848–1893). A Pioneer Physiologist,” in Medical History, 13 (1969), 271–279; Henry Sewall, “Henry Newell Martin, Professor of Biology in Johns Hopkins University, 1876–1893,” in Bulletin of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, 22 (1911), 327–333; Michael Foster, Proceedings of the Royal Society, 60 (1897), xx–xxiii; R. H. Chittenden, “Henry Newell Martin,” in Dictionary of American Biography, XII, 337–338. See also the sketch by William Howells, Martin’s immediate successor, in The History of the American Physiological Society. Semi-Centennial, 1887–1937 (Baltimore, 1938), 15–18.

The best evaluation of Martin’s role at Hopkins is to be found in Hugh Hawkins, Pioneer: A History of the Johns Hopkins University. 1874–1889 (Ithaca, N. Y., 1960). Supplementary information may be found in Walter J. Meek, “The Beginnings of American Physiology,”in Annals of Medical History, 10 (1928), 122–124; Gerald B. Webb and Desmond Powell, Henry Sewall. Physiologist and Physician (Baltimore, 1946). Martin’s Physiological Papers were collected and published by the Johns Hopkins University Press as volume III of the Memoirs From the Biological Laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, 1895). His text, The Human Body (New York, 1881), was used widely in the United States and went through several editions. With William Moale he wrote for classroom use a Handbook of Vertebrate Dissection (New York, 1881).

Charles E. Rosenberg