Meltzer, Samuel James

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(b. Ponevyezh, Russia [now Panevezhis, Lithuanian S.S.R.], 22 March 1851; d. New York, N. Y., 7 November 1920)

physiology, pharmacology.

Meltzer was the son of Simon Meltzer, a teacher, and Taube Kowars. The family were orthodox Jews and Samuel’s early education was obtained at a rabbinical seminary, but he decided against a religious vocation. After his marriage he studied at the Realgymnasium in Königsberg. He also attempted unsuccessfully to operate a soap-manufacturing business. In 1876 Meltzer entered the University of Berlin, where he studied philosophy and medicine. Under the direction of the physiologist Hugo Kronecker, he pursued experimental studies on the mechanism of swallowing. He received his medical degree in 1882.

Meltzer soon immigrated to the United States, settling in New York City, where he practiced medicine. In order to continue research he made arrangements to have access to laboratory facilities, particularly William Henry Welch’s laboratory at Bellevue Hospital. In 1904 he joined the staff of the recently created Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research; he was head of the department of physiology and pharmacology until his retirement in 1919.

Meltzer’s intimate acquaintance with both medical practice and research allowed him to serve as a liaison between practitioners and scientific investigators. He played an important role in the founding and early development of several scientific or medical societies, including the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine—familiarly called the Meltzer Verein for many years. His strong belief in the cosmopolitanism of science led him to organize the Fraternitas Medicorum, an international medical brotherhood, during World War I, and thousands of American medical men joined the organization before its activities were suspended when the United States entered the conflict.

Meltzer also made contributions to pharmacology, pathology, and clinical medicine, as well as to physiology, his major field of interest. He was too inclined to speculate about his experimental results and to seek the general principles that govern physiological phenomena. In his 1882 medical dissertation on the swallowing reflex, he first outlined the theory of inhibition, which influenced much of his subsequent work. During the course of his studies on the act of swallowing, he noted that reflex stimulation of inspiratory muscles is accompanied by reflex inhibition of expiratory muscles, and vice versa. He postulated that this reciprocal arrangement must exist for other antagonistic muscles in the body for the purpose of efficient motor action. In 1893 Charles Sherrington, apparently unaware of Meltzer’s work, showed that the contraction of an extensor in the limb is accompanied by a relaxation of its opposing flexor, and vice versa (specifically predicted by Meltzer). Sherrington called this relationship reciprocal innervation.

Meltzer developed the idea of combined action of opposing processes into a general theory. He believed that every excitation or stimulation of a tissue was accompanied by a corresponding inhibitory impulse. Physiological phenomena are a result of the compromise between these two fundamental, antagonistic life forces—excitation and inhibition. Although his dualistic conception of life processes did not gain wide acceptance, it was an important stimulus to his own experimental work.

One of Meltzer’s most important experimental studies dealt with the pharmacological effect of magnesium salts. These compounds were shown to produce a state of unconsciousness and muscle relaxation in animals which was readily reversed by the injection of calcium chloride. This work added magnesium to the elements known to play a part in the activity of the cell, and Meltzer believed he had found the element in the body that is especially concerned with inhibition.

Another important series of researches dealt with artificial respiration. Meltzer and John Auer developed the technique of intratracheal insufflation, whereby the lungs are kept inflated by blowing a stream of air through a tube inserted into the trachea. By including an anesthetic vapor in the air stream, anesthetization could be produced at the same time as artificial respiration. The technique was valuable in thoracic surgery as a simple means of keeping the lungs inflated after the chest had been opened.

Meltzer’s other significant contributions included the hypothesis that bronchial asthma is a phenomenon of anaphylaxis, the introduction of the engineering term “factors of safety” to describe the reserve powers of organisms, and researches with his daughter Clara on the effects of adrenaline on the blood vessels and on the muscles of the iris.


I. Original Works. For a bibliography of Meltzer’s publications, see William Howell, “Biographical Memoir, Samuel James Meltzer, 1851–1920,” in Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, Scientific Memoir Series, 21 (1926), 15–23. Meltzer discussed his theory of inhibition in detail in “Inhibition,” in New York Medical Journal, 69 (1899), 661–666, 699–703, 739–743. The enduring influence of this theory on his work is illustrated in one of his last papers, “The Dualistic Conception of the Processes of Animal Life,” in Transactions of the Association of American Physicians, 35 (1920), 247–257. His main experimental work on magnesium salts is described in a series of four papers written with John Auer under the general title “Physiological and Pharmacological Studies of Magnesium Salts,” in American Journal of Physiology, 14–17 (1905–1906). For a description of the technique of intratracheal insufflation, see “The Method of Respiration by Intratracheal Insufflation: Its Scientific Principle and Its Practical Availability in Medicine and Surgery,” in Medical Record, 77 (1910), 477–483, which is followed by several articles by other authors on the surgical use of this technique. Other important papers include “Bronchial Asthma as a Phenomenon of Anaphylaxis,” in Journal of the American Medical Association, 55 (1910), 1021–1024; and “The Factors of Safety in Animal Structure and Animal Economy,” in Science, 25 (1907), 481–498.

II. Secondary Literature. The best biography is the memoir by William Howell cited above. See also Howell’s memoir in Science, n.s. 53 (1921), 99–106; and R. H. Chittenden’s article in the Dictionary of American Biography, XII (1933), 519–520. George Corner, A History of The Rockefeller Institute, 1901–1953, Origins and Growth (New York, 1964), discusses Meltzer and his work—see esp. pp. 117–120. A special supp. to vol 18 (1921) of Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine, entitled “’Memorial Number for Samuel James Meltzer, Founder and First President of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine,” contains several biographical sketches by colleagues.

John Parascandola