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Richards, Alfred Newton


(b. Stamford, New York, 22 March 1876; d. Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, 24 March 1976)

physiology, pharmacology.

Richards was the youngest of three sons of Leonard E. Richards, a Presbyterian minister, and Mary Elizabeth Burbank, a schoolteacher before her marriage. Life in the Richards household was strict and austere. Reverend Richards’ salary was under $1,000 annually, but the family saved enough to help support Richards and his brothers through college. Richards received his B.A. in chemistry from Yale in 1897. He remained in New Haven for another year, working under physiological chemist Russell Chittenden in the Sheffield Scientific School, Richards spent the next decade at Columbia, where he received his Ph.D. in physiological chemistry in 1901. He was an assistant and tutor in physiological chemistry until 1904, and he offered the first laboratory-based course in pharmacology at Columbia, beginning in 1904.

In 1908, the year he married Lillian L. Woody (on 26 December), Richards accepted an offer to organize a pharmacology program at Northwestern University. He remained at Northwestern until 1910, when he accepted the professorship of pharmacology at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. Richards spent the rest of his career in Philadelphia. He was an active member of many scientific organizations, and his career as a scientific researcher and administrator earned Richards over a dozen honorary degrees from universities in the United States and abroad.

Richards’ most significant contributions as a researcher concerned renal physiology, a subject to which he devoted more than twenty years. He began this work to help settle a debate, dating back to the 1840’s, over the mechanism by which kidneys form urine. Scientists formulated the earliest theories of urine formation solely on the basis of anatomical structure. In 1842 William Bowman reported that the microscopic spherical bodies of the outer kidney, which Marcello Malpighi had observed in the mid-seventeenth century, were expanded ends of the urine-bearing tubules that stretched into the interior of the kidney. A tuft of capillaries projected into each of these tubule ends. Bowman believed these capillaries provided the aqueous vehicle for urine and that the tubules—themselves encircled by capillaries—eliminated the particles from the blood that made up urine.

As an alternative to this “secretory” theory, Carl Ludwig published his “filtration-reabsorption” theory of urine formation in 1844. According to Ludwig, a particularly high blood pressure within the tuft of capillaries produced a filtrate in the Malpighian spherical body, or glomerulus, of urinous and other particles that could permeate the capillary wall. The capillaries surrounding the tubules, which contained the concentrated blood, reabsorbed (by osmosis) most of the fluid and many of the vital particles filtered in the glomerulus. The remaining fluid and waste particles emerged from the tubules as urine.

Richards initiated the kidney project about 1913, shortly after he and Cecil Drinker developed a perfusion apparatus that could supply blood to an animal’s kidney in much the same way as the heart did. The apparatus possessed the advantage of allowing the researchers to control the flow, velocity, and pressure of blood in the kidney. In 1922 Richards and his colleagues reported that as pressure increased within glomerular capillaries, urine output increased as well—just as the filtration-reabsorption theory predicted.

Two years later, Richards and J. T. Wearn published the first of many papers on the composition of glomerular urine in the amphibian kidney. This research required tremendously difficult techniques, such as micropuncture of glomeruli and ultrami-crochemical analysis, but it was the most direct way available to learn about the formation of urine. Their simultaneous analyses of blood, glomerular fluid, and urine revealed that the glomerulus contained many of the normal constituents of blood, such as sodium chloride and glucose, which urine lacked. Also, dyes incorporated into perfusion fluid and injected into animals appeared in the glomerulus.

This provided compelling evidence for glomerular filtration, as did their quantitative comparisons of blood plasma and glomerular fluid, most of which they carried out in the early 1930’s. Plasma and fluid had about the same percentage of permeative components (glucose, urea, and inulin, among others), and the two solutions had about the same pH. The investigations of the role of kidney tubules conducted in Richards’ laboratory, most of which were published in 1937, suggested that reabsorptive (and some secretory) processes operated between the tubules and blood. Overall, Richards’ contributions to renal physiology went a long way toward settling a century-old dispute about the nature of renal functions and laid the foundation for a better understanding of renal pathology.

Richards achieved equal prominence as an administrator of scientific research. His first major position was as vice president in charge of medical affairs at the University of Pennsylvania from 1939 to 1948. During this period he headed two scientific bodies that had a significant impact on the national and international scientific communities. From 1941 to 1947 Richards was chairman of the Committee on Medical Research, an organization that the U.S. Congress created to help meet the country’s wartime medical needs. It mobilized medical researchers from universities, industry, government laboratories, and private foundations, and it recommended projects (such as research on penicillin and antimalarials) that merited the highest priority from the standpoint of national defense to its parent body, the Office of Scientific Research and Development.

Richards was president of the National Academy of Sciences from 1947 to 1950. He firmly believed that researchers in industry could contribute in a major way to the advancement of science. Thus, he helped shape the research policies of one of the leading research-oriented firms in the pharmaceutical industry, Merck and Company, which he served as a consultant from 1930 to 1960.

Richards’ contributions to science, therefore, are twofold. As a researcher he shed considerable light on fundamental physiological processes in the kidney. As an administrator he guided institutions and organizations that played an important part in the broad progress of science.


I. Original Works. Richards’ key summaries of his kidney research include “Kidney Function,” in American Journal of the Medical Sciences, 163 (1922), 1–19; Methods and Results of Direct Investigations of the Function of the kidney (Baltimore, 1929); “Urine Formation in the Amphibian Kidney”, in American Journal of the Medical Sciences, 190 (1935), 727–746, with Arthur M. Walker; and “Processes of Urine Formation”, in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B126 (1938), 398–432. Among the relevant individual articles and groups of papers on his kidney work are three papers by Richards and Oscar Plant in American Journal of Physiology, 59 (1922), 144–202, which report the effect of changes in renal blood pressure on urine output; “Observations on the Composition of Glomerular Urine . . .,” ibid., 71 (1924), 209–227, with J. T. Wearn, the first detailed publication of their qualitative analysis of glomerular fluid; eight articles from Richards’ laboratory in Journal of Biological Chemistry, 101 (1933), 179–267, 107 (1934), 661–672, 110 (1935), 749–761, and 116 (1936), 735–747, on quantitative studies of glomerular fluid; and six papers by Richards and his colleagues in American Journal of Physiology, 118 (1937), 111–173, which discuss their investigation of renal tubule fluid.

Richards summarized the work of the Committee on Medical Research in the foreward to Edwin C. Andrus et al., eds., Advances in Military Medicine, 2 vols. (Boston, 1948), I, xli-liv.

The most comprehensive source on Richards’ professional career and personal life is the extensive collection of his personal papers in the University of Pennsylvania Archives (a total of 42 boxes). Additional documents on Richards’ service to the Committee on Medical Research are in the papers of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Record Group 227, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

II. Secondary Literature. The best biography of Richards is Carl F. Schmidt, “Alfred Newton Richards”, in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 42 (1971), 271–318. The collection of articles in Isaac Stair, ed., “Alfred Newton Richards, Scientist and Man”, in Annals of Internal Medicine, 71 , supp. 8, no. 5, pt.2 (1969), covers many areas of Richards’ life and work, including his years as head of the Committee on Medical Research and his kidney research. David Y. Cooperm “Alfred N. Richards and the Discovery of the Mechanism of Urine Formation”, in Transactions and Studies of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 6 (1984), 63–73, discusses Richards’ kidney research in depth.

John Patrick Swann

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