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Richardson, Benjamin Ward


(b. Somerby, Leicestershire, England, 31 October 1828; d. London, England, 21 November 1896) medicine, pharmacology.

Richardson was an eminent physician who was active in many of the reform movements of his time, including temperance, public hygiene, and sanitation. He strongly advocated more humane treatment of laboratory animals; was an early enthusiast of bicycling; and wrote poems, plays, songs, biographies, and a novel. Richardson’s intellectual credentials were impeccable: he was apprenticed to a surgeon in Somerby and in 1847 entered Anderson’s University (now Anderson’s College). In 1850 he became licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow and in 1854, M.A. and M.D. of St. Andrews. He became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1865, of the Royal Society in 1867, and of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow in 1878. He was knighted in 1893.

Richardson also contributed to the development of a vigorous, scientific pharmacology. In a remarkable series of experiments supported financially by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and published in the British Association Reports between 1863 and 1871, Richardson studied the physiological effects of a number of families of organic compounds. He deliberately chose substances the chemical compositions of which he could determine. By altering their constitutions through the controlled addition or substitution of various radicals, Richardson sought to determine the “physiological significance” of these radicals. He hoped to be able to predict a compound’s physiological effect from this knowledge of its constituent elements, and from the known effects of chemically related substances.

Richardson applied his method to the study of compounds in the amyl, methyl, and ethyl series; and of a number of alcohols, hydrides, iodides, and chlorides. In the course of his investigations he found several therapeutically useful drugs, such as amyl nitrite and methylene bichloride. He was unable to formulate any general laws relating chemical constitution to physiological action. Nevertheless, his assumption that only portions of a molecule enter into the actual “physiologic reaction,” and his method of investigating clusters of similar compounds, were adopted by later pharmacologists with fertile results.


The major sources of information about Richardson’s life are his autobiography, Vita medica (London, 1897), and a life by his daughter, prefixed to Richardson’s book, Disciples of Aesculapius, 2 vols. (London, 1900). A short modern work is Sir Arthur MacNalty, A Biography of Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson (London, 1950), with a moderately complete bibliography, which may be supplemented by the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, V, 187–188; VIII, 743–744; XI, 168–169; XVIII, 178.

Two recent papers stress Richardson’s pharmacological work: J. Parascandola, “Structure-Activity Relationships—the Early Mirage,” in Pharmacy in History, 13 (1971), 3–10; and W. F. Bynum, “Chemical Structure and Pharmacological Action: A Chapter in the History of 19th Century Molecular Pharmacology,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 44 (1970), 518–538.

William F. Bynum

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