Oliver, George

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(b. Middleion-in-Teesdale, Durham, England, 13 April 1841; d. Farnham, Surrey, England, 27 December 1915)


Oliver was the second son of W. Oliver, a surgeon. He prepared at Gainford School, Yorkshire, for medical studies at University College, London, qualifying for membership in the Royal College of Surgeons in 1863 and receiving the M.B. in 1865. After brief periods of practice at Stockton-on-Tees and Redcar, he won the gold medal in obtaining his M.D. (London) in 1873. Oliver settled in Harrogate, where he practiced medicine from 1876 to 1908, then retired to Farnham. His first wife, Alice Hunt, died in 1898. Two years later he married Mary Ledyard, who survived him. Winter residence in London, afforded him by the seasonal nature of his Harrogate practice, allowed Oliver to be active in a number of medical and scientific societies. He was a member of the Physiological Society and of the Medical Society of London and a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London, the Royal Society of Medicine, and the Royal Microscopical Society.

Oliver was one of the many medical students influenced by William Sharpey, professor of anatomy and physiology at University College, to devote himself to the development of more scientific methods of diagnosis and therapy. With extensive clinical experience, knowledge of physiology and chemistry, and considerable technical ingenuity, he devised accurate and convenient techniques for, among other things, the analysis of blood and of urine, the measurement of circulatory phenomena, and the assessment of the therapeutic effects of medicinal waters. Notable examples of his contributions in this area are his introduction of urinary testing papers and of his hemacytometer, hemoglobinometer, arteriometer. and sphygmomanometer.

Oliver’s interest in the circulation and his facility with instruments led to his most important scientific contribution, a collaboration with Edward A. Schäfer (later Sir Edward Sharpey-Schafer) in 1893–1895, in which the two elucidated the cardiovascular effects of the administration of extracts of the adrenal medulla and of the pituitary. Oliver administered glycerin extracts of a number of different organs to his son, noting their various effects with particular reference to the caliber of the peripheral arteries, as measured by his arteriometer. In Schäfer’s words:

Dr. George Oliver had been making a large number of clinical observations upon the effect of various organ extracts upon the circulation, but had been unable to arrive at any very definite conclusions regarding them. Amongst these was extract of suprarenal capsule, extract of thyroid gland, extract of brain and so on. He consulted me as to what steps might be taken to arrive at a clearer understanding in regard to their action, and I invited him to investigate their physiological action along with me upon animals in the laboratory. This we proceeded to do; and the result of the investigation was that the majority of the extracts from which he supposed that he had obtained definite results in man gave no indications of physiological activity; whereas on the other hand, the extract of suprarenal capsule gave such manifest indications of activity that it was quite clear that a very important principle was contained within this organ. The properties of this principle we then proceeded to work out… [from Schäfer’s testimony before the second Royal Commission on Vivisection, in British Parliamentary Papers, 57 (1908), 430].

Addison in 1849 had associated a diseased state of the adrenal glands with the set of clinical symptoms characteristic of the disease that now bears his name. Brown-Séquard (1856) showed that excision of the entire adrenal glands of animals was inevitably fatal. Oliver and Schäfer’s experiments demonstrated conclusively that intravenous injection of small quantities of aqueous extract of adrenal gland into various animals produced striking effects: a sharp increase in blood pressure owing to contraction of the arterioles, cardiac inhibition, shallower respiration, and prolongation of muscular contractions. They showed that the extract took effect through direct action on the peripheral arterioles; that the activity of the extract was preserved through digestion; that the active principle was produced by the medulla and not by the cortex of the gland; and that the active principle was absent in extracts of glands from patients with advanced Addison’s disease. Oliver and Schäfer identified the active principle which they had demonstrated in the adrenals with a substance described by Vulpian (1856) in his distinction between the cortex and the medulla of the gland. They contrasted their results with those of Paolo Pellacani (1874) and Pio Foá and Pellacani (1884), who had found that injection of adrenal extract into animals was generally fatal. In related work they demonstrated that extract of pituitary in relatively large quantities caused a somewhat smaller rise in blood pressure due to contraction of arterioles and augmentation of heart action.

Oliver and Schäfer’s accomplishment was the first detailed study of the effect of the active principle of a ductless gland. By explicitly rejecting the autointoxication theory, which held that fatalities following excision of the adrenals were due to the accumulation in the blood of toxins that it was the normal function of the adrenals to destroy, they helped to shape the endocrine doctrine. They pointed out that the production of a specific active principle, diffused through the blood, appeared to be the essential function of certain ductless glands, notably the thyroid and the adrenals. Their work was the basis for subsequent research in which J. J. Abel (1899) isolated and named the active principle of the adrenal medulla, epinephrine, and Thomas Bell Aldrich (1901) and Jokichi Takamine (1901) prepared it in crystalline form.


I. Original Works. Oliver’s many medical writings are listed in Index medicos. His endocrinological researches are dealt with in four papers written with E. A. Schäfer: “On the Physiological Action of Extract of the Suprarenal Capsules,” in Journal of Physiology, 16 (1894), i-iv, and 17 (1894–1895), ix-xiv; “The Physiological Effects of Extracts of the Suprarenal Capsules,” ibid., 18 (1895), 230–276; and “On the Physiological Action of Extracts of Pituitary Body and Certain Other Glandular Organs,” ibid., 277 279. See also “The Croonian Lectures: A Contribution to the Study of the Blood and the Circulation. Lecture II,” in British Medical Journal (1896), 1, 1433- 1437; and “The Action of Animal Extracts on the Peripheral Vessels,” in Journal of Physiology, 21 (1897), xxii-xxiii; and the book Pulse-Gauging. A Clinical Study of Radial Measurement and Pulse-Pressure (London, 1895). A few letters by Oliver are in the Wellcome Institute of the History of Medicine, London, and in the library of the Royal College of Physicians, London. His MS notes of William Jenner’s lectures in medicine for the session of 1862–1863 are in the library of University College Hospital, London.

II. Secondary Literature. Sources for Oliver’s life and work are the notices in Lancet (1916), 1, 105; and British Medical Journal (1916), 1, 73; Munk’s Roll (London, 1955), IV, 324; Presidential Address to the Royal College of Physicians of London (London, 1916). 27 29; and T. R. Elliot, “Sir William leaner and Dr. George Oliver,” in University College Hospital Magazine, 19 (1934), 159–163. On Oliver’s work in the context of early endocrinology, see E. A. Schäfer, “Internal Secretions,” in Lancet (1895), 2, 321–324, an important theoretical discussion, and “On the Present Condition of Our Knowledge Regarding the Functions of the Suprarenal Capsules,” in British Medical Journal (1908), I, 1277–1281, 1346–1351. See also the following books; L. F. Barker, ed., Endocrinology and Metabolism(London, 1922); A. Biedl, The Internal Secretory Organs: Their Physiology and Pathology,L. Forster, trans. (London, 1913); C MeC. Brooks, J. L. Gilbert, H. A. Levey, and D. R. Curtis, Humors, Hormones and Neurosecretions (New York, 1962); J. F. Fulton and L. G. Wilson, eds., Selected Readings in the History of Physiology,2nd ed. (Springfield. III., 1966); E. Gley, The Internal Secretions. Their Physiology and Application to Pathology. M. Fishberg, trans. (New York, 1917), H. D. Rolleston, The Endocrine Organs in Health and Disease, With an Historical Review (London, 1936); E, A. Schäfer, ed., Text-Book of Physiology, I (Edinburgh-London, 1898); and The Endocrine Organs. An Introduction to the Study of Internal Secretion (London, 1916); and S. Vincent, Internal Secretion and the Ductless Glands (London, 1912).

Richard D. French