Richard Lower

views updated

Richard Lower


English Physician, Anatomist, and Physiologist

The son of a country gentleman, Lower was born on the family estate in Tremeer, Cornwall. From 1643 to 1649 he attended Westminster School of St. Peter's College, London, the most celebrated British preparatory school of the era. There he won the praise of the headmaster, Richard Busby, who sent him to Christ Church College, Oxford University, in 1649. Lower received his B.A. in 1653, his M.A. in 1655, and both his B.Med. and D.Med. in 1665, all from Oxford.

At Oxford he studied chemistry under Peter Stahl and became the protégé and later the assistant of Thomas Willis (1621-1675), who was then renowned as the greatest medical scientist in England. Lower was part of an informal group of researchers known as the "Oxford physiologists." Among his scientific collaborators at Oxford, besides Willis, were Ralph Bathurst (1620-1704), Robert Boyle (1627-1691), Robert Hooke (1635-1703), John Locke (1632-1704), John Mayow (1641-1679), Thomas Millington, Walter Needham, William Petty (1623-1687), Henry Stubbe, John Wallis (1616-1703), John Ward, and Christopher Wren (1632-1723). Lower, Millington, and Wren all helped Willis to produce the monumental Cerebri anatome (Anatomy of the Brain) in 1664.

Tensions in the mid-seventeenth century ran high between adherents of the ancient medical theories of Galen (130-200) and followers of the new physiology of William Harvey (1578-1657). Willis, Lower, and the rest of the Oxford physiologists were all Harveians. Harvey himself had been at Oxford from 1642 to 1646. One of the staunch Galenists, Edmund Meara, denounced Willis and the entire Harveian worldview in Examen diatribae Thomae Willisii de febribus (Examination of the discourse of Thomas Willis on fevers) in 1665. Considering himself Willis's disciple, Lower rushed to his master's defense. His first publication, Diatribae Thomae Willisii de febribus vindicatio (Vindication of the discourse of Thomas Willis on fevers), appeared only four months later. It was a vigorous polemic which not only counterattacked Meara, but also defended Boyle and Harvey and laid out a Harveian agenda for further research into the physiology of the blood. It contained some of the earliest correct observations about lung function, the interaction of the heart and lungs, the differences between arterial and venous blood, and the relation of respiration to blood color.

In 1666 Lower married Elizabeth Billing, by whom he had two daughters. When Willis moved to London in 1666, Lower followed him shortly thereafter, set up his own practice, but continued working with Willis on several research projects. Lower became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1667 and a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1675. After Willis died in 1675, Lower was London's leading physician for a short time. His outspoken Whig politics drove most of his highborn patients away after 1678.

Lower was one of the first physicians to perform successful blood transfusions. He reported his experiments on dogs in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1665 and described his transfusion of sheep's blood into a human in the same journal in 1667. In connection with this work, he greatly improved the design of the syringe.

Lower's 1669 Tractatus de corde (Treatise on the Heart) contained many noteworthy advances in cardiology, including the first accurate anatomical description of the structure of heart muscle. He improved Harvey's theory of blood circulation and speculated about why dark blood from a vein turns bright red when exposed to air. One particularly famous section of this book, "Dissertatio de origine catarrhi" (Dissertation on the origin of catarrh), disproved the traditional belief that nasal congestion was caused by mucus dripping down from the brain or the pituitary. Even Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) had failed to refute Galen on this point.