Henderson, L. J.

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Henderson, L. J.



Lawrence Joseph Henderson (1878–1942), American chemist and sociologist, was born in Lynn, Massachusetts. His father was a ship chandler of Salem, with business interests in the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon; and it was there, of all strange places, that Henderson acquired his life-long devotion to the civilization of France.

His regular academic career lay in the field of biological chemistry. He graduated from Harvard College in 1898 and from Harvard Medical School in 1902. There followed two years’ work in chemical research at the University of Strasbourg. Henderson then returned to Harvard, rising through the academic ranks to become professor of chemistry. In the light of his later interests in social science, it is significant that his early research was devoted to the mechanisms of neutrality regulation in the animal organism and that in 1908 he achieved a precise mathematical formulation of the acid-base equilibrium. There was much interest in research on problems of physiological equi librium at Harvard at the time. Henderson had some influence on, and was always interested in, the work on homeostasis carried out by his colleague Walter B. Cannon, professor of physiology (Cannon 1932). Henderson’s later research turned to similiar problems in the chemistry of blood. Here his investigations were of fundamental importance, leading, through the work of his students, to such applications as the use of blood plasma to save the lives of the wounded in World War II. He was one of the most original and distinguished biological chemists of his time.

Henderson also kept up an irregular interest in the wider problems suggested by his chemical research, problems in the philosophy of science and the methodology of inquiry into systems of variables in complex relations of mutual dependence. For years he took part in seminars in the philos ophy department at Harvard, and in 1911 he offered the first course given there on the history of science. He wrote two general books on the relationships between the organism and its environment and between determinism and teleology: The Fitness of the Environment (1913) and The Order of Nature (1917). His general question might be put thus: How do nature’s efficient causes cooperate with her final ones?

Henderson’s interest in sociology came late in his life but was a natural development of what had gone before. About 1926 William M. Wheeler of Harvard, whose study of insect societies led him to read widely in human sociology, suggested to Henderson that he read Pareto’s Sociologie genératé (see Pareto 1916). At once Henderson became an enthusiast. He felt that Pareto’s treatment of sci entific methodology and equilibrium phenomena was excellent and that Pareto’s substantive views on human society made explicit conclusions he himself had arrived at more intuitively. In 1932-1933 Henderson conducted a seminar on Pareto’s sociology—the first such seminar in an English-speaking country. One of the products of the seminar was An Introduction to Pareto (1934) by Homans and Curtis, the first book on the subject in English. Henderson published his own book, Pareto’s General Sociology (1935), emphasizing such matters as equilibrium, the social system, the mutual dependence of variables, and the problems of induction and abstraction. Through his book, his seminar, and a later course he offered called “Concrete Sociology,” he made these ideas part of the thinking of a number of sociologists present at Harvard at the time, including Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton. Henderson was also the first chairman of the Society of Fellows at Harvard, established in 1933, whose members, besides receiving scholarships to study whatever they wished, dined together once a week. Among the early members were C. M. Arensberg, B. F. Skinner, W. F. Whyte, and G. C. Homans. They soon became familiar, through their conversations, with Hender son’s views.

One final connection of Henderson with social science should be mentioned. In 1926 he became director of the Fatigue Laboratory of the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. In the adjoining office was Elton Mayo, then beginning his researches in the Western Electric Company. The plan was that Henderson should study the physiology of work, while Mayo studied its psychology. Henderson had no direct influence on the conduct of the Western Electric researches, but his ideas became part of the intellectual atmosphere in which the research team—Mayo, T. N. Whitehead, and F. J. Roethlisberger—did their work. Through the Harvard Business School Henderson also came into contact with Chester I. Barnard and encouraged him to write The Functions of the Executive (1938). In 1939 Henderson was appointed chairman of the Committee on Work in Industry of the National Research Council, and under his leadership the committee surveyed and evaluated much research in this field, both physiological and sociological (National Research Council 1941).

Henderson never carried out any empirical research in social science, nor did he become widely read in its literature, but his ideas about methodology in the broadest sense of the word were deeply influential at a time and place of more than ordinary significance in the development of sociology.

George Caspar Homans

[Other relevant material may be found in the biographies ofBarnard; Cannon; Mayo; Pareto.]


1913 The Fitness of the Environment: An Inquiry Into the Biological Significance of the Properties of Matter. New York: Macmillan. → A paperback edition was published in 1958 by Beacon.

1917The Order of Nature: An Essay. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

1935 Pareto’s General Sociology: A Physiologist’s Interpretation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.


Barnard, Chester I. (1938) 1962 The Functions of the Executive. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Cannon, Walter B. (1932) 1963 The Wisdom of the Body. Rev. & enl. ed. New York: Norton.

Cannon, Walter B. 1945 Biographical Memoir of Law rence Joseph Henderson: 1878–1942. Volume 23, pages 31-58 in National Academy of Sciences, Bio graphical Memoirs. Washington: The Academy.

Homans, George C. 1962 Sentiments and Activities: Essays in Social Science. New York: Free Press. → See especially pages 1-49, “Autobiographical Introduction.”

Homans, George C; and Bailey, Orville T. (1948) 1959 The Society of Fellows, Harvard University, 1933–1947. Pages 1-37 in Clarence C. Brinton (edi tor), The Society of Fellows. Cambridge, Mass.: The Society.

Homans, George C; and Curtis, Charles P. Jr. 1934 An Introduction to Pareto: His Sociology. New York: Knopf.

National Research Council, Committeeon Work in Industry 1941 Fatigue of Workers: Its Relation to Industrial Production. New York: Reinhold.

Pareto, Vilfredo (191u, 1963 The Mind and Society: A Treatise on General Sociology. 4 vols. New York: Dover. → First published as Trattato di sociologia genératé and in 1917 as Sociologie genératé. Volume 1: Non-logical Conduct. Volume 2: Theory of Residues. Volume 3: Theory of Derivations. Volume 4: The general Form of Society.

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