American Medical Biographies/Bowditch, Henry Pickering

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Bowditch, Henry Pickering (1840–1911)

Henry Pickering Bowditch, physiologist, was born in Boston, April 4, 1840, grandson of Nathaniel Bowditch, the distinguished mathematician and navigator, and son of Ingersoll Bowditch, a merchant honored for integrity and generosity. Through his mother, he was descended from Colonel Timothy Pickering, Secretary of State under Washington.

At the age of 21 he was graduated from Harvard College with the A. B. degree. In the fall of that year he volunteered his services for the Civil War and was appointed second lieutenant of the First Massachusetts Cavalry. From January, 1862, until the close of the conflict, he was in active service, and entered Richmond, April 3, 1865, as major in the Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry (colored).

In the autumn of 1865, he began again his studies at the Lawrence Scientific School under Jeffries Wyman, but soon changed to the Medical School from which he received, in 1868, the M. D. degree.

Following his medical course Dr. Bowditch went abroad to study physiology and came into relations with Claude Bernard, in Paris, and Carl Ludwig, in Leipzig. Since Ludwig's laboratory was the centre for physiological study at the time, he there made acquaintance with young men from various countries—Mosso, Kronecker, Brunton, Lankester, Cyon—whose friendships lasted throughout their lives. The years in Leipzig were highly profitable, for one of his papers in which he described the "all-or-none" law of the heart and the "treppe" effect, is a classic in physiology.

Dr. Bowditch returned to Boston, 1871, as assistant professor of physiology in the Harvard Medical School. He soon established a laboratory, the first physiological laboratory for the use of students in the United States. The interests of the laboratory were in fact, broader than physiology, for the researches conducted in it were concerned with general biology, experimental pharmacology and pathology, experimental psychology and experimental surgery, in addition to investigations which would be recognized now as strictly physiological. The first careful work in bacteriology in the United States was begun there. From the beginning the emphasis which Dr. Bowditch placed on the industry of the laboratory was in the direction of productive scholarship.

An inventive quality possessed by him found full opportunity in physiological investigation. He first suggested simultaneous records for the kymograph. He contrived the Bowditch clock for registering time on graphic records; the induction apparatus with the secondary coil turning at various angles, as well as a new form of plethysmograph to register the changes in the volume of organs, testified to his inventiveness.

His own investigations, in addition to those on the peculiar functions of cardiac muscle, included work on the indefatigability of nerves, conditions affecting the activity of the knee-jerk, the force of ciliary motion, the effects of different rates and intensity of stimulation on the action of vasomotor nerves and anthropometric examinations of the rate of growth of school-children.

As a teacher, Dr. Bowditch's lectures were characterized by wise selection of material, cautious inference and orderly exposition. He made use of the method of sending students to original sources for material for physiological theses—a notable contribution to educational procedure. In 1876 he was made professor of physiology, and in 1903 was appointed to the George Higginson professorship. He was influential in founding the American Physiological Society and establishing the American Journal of Physiology.

His services to the Harvard Medical School were various. He aided in securing a new building for the school on Boylston Street which was occupied in 1883; and with Dr. John Collins Warren he was chiefly instrumental in obtaining funds for the monumental group of buildings across the Fens, in Roxbury, occupied in 1906. From 1883 to 1893, he was dean, and during that time introduced bacteriology and began to bring men from other universities to assume positions in the School. His interest in medical education was expressed in two addresses, "Reform of Medical Education" and "The Medical School of the Future."

Among the most valuable of his larger services to medicine was Dr. Bowditch's defense of animal experimentation. The pioneer work in overcoming the zeal of misguided agitators on this subject was done by him before the Massachusetts Legislature, and the methods he used and proved effective have been extended to other commonwealths. His address on "The Advancement of Medicine by Research" was an illuminating statement of the benefits to mankind from animal experimentation.

He made a number of direct contributions to physical anthropology, some of which are of great value, notably his investigations on the growth of children. These appeared in the annual reports of the Massachusetts State Board of Health in 1877 and 1879, 1889–90 and 1891, also in the transactions of the American Medical Association, 1881.

In public service he was a member of the Boston School Committee (1877–1881), was president of the Boston Children's Aid Society, was trustee of the Boston Public Library (1895–1902), and was an active member of the Committee of Fifty on the Alcohol Problem.

His services were widely honored. In 1872, he was made a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was also a member of the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of Medicine and Natural Sciences of Brussels, the Academy of Science of Rome and other foreign societies. The University of Cambridge made him honorary Doctor of Science in 1898. He was granted the degree of Doctor of Laws by Edinburgh (1898), Toronto (1903), Pennsylvania (1904), and Harvard (1906).

Dr. Bowditch possessed a rare combination of sober judgment and vigorous will—the qualities of a natural leader. His ingenuity and effectiveness were manifest not only in physiological research, but in matters of affairs. He possessed unfailing courtesy, fairness and goodwill, warmed by a delightful sense of humor. His friendships he cultivated in many happy ways, both at his home in Boston and in his summer camp in the Adirondacks.

Dr. Bowditch's last years were saddened by the gradual limitation of his vigor and activity through the advances of paralysis agitans. But throughout the gradual decline he accepted his fate with cheerfulness and with gentle consideration for those about him. He died at his home in Boston, March, 13, 1911, being survived by his widow, Selma Knauth, whom he had met in Leipzig, and a family of sons and daughters.

One of the last times that he appeared in public was in Sanders Theater at the ceremonies of dedication of the new Medical School buildings. The occasion was a memorable one, and Dr. Bowditch's impressive figure, clad in the scarlet robes of his Edinburgh doctorate, and seated at the front of the platform, side by side with Dr. Warren, made a fitting center to the striking scene.

Some of the important publications of Dr. H. P. Bowditch are:—

1871. Uber die Eigenthümlichkeiten der Reizbarkeit, welche die Muskelfasern des Herzens zeigen. Arb. a. d. physiol. Anst. zu Leipz., 1871, 139–176. Also: Ber. d. k. sachs. Gesellsch. d. Wissensch. Math. phys. Kl., 1871.

1875. A new form of inductive apparatus. Proc. Amer. Acad., Oct. 12, 1875.

1876. Force of ciliary motion. Boston Med. & Surg. Jour., vol. xcv, 159–164.

1877. The growth of children. 8th Annual Report of the State Board of Health of Mass., Boston, 1877, 275.

1879. A new form of plethysmograph. Proc. Am. Acad., May 14, 1879.

1880–82. Dr. Bowditch and Hall, G. S. Optical illusions of motion Jour. of Physiol., 1880–82, vol. iii, 297–307.

1883. Dr. Bowditch and Warren, J. W. Plethysmographische Untersuchungen über die Gefässnerven der Extremitäten. Centralbl. f. d. med. Wissensch., 1883, vol. xxi, 513.

1885. Note on the nature of nerve-force. Jour. of Physiol., 1885, vol vi., 133–135.

1886. Dr. Bowditch and Warren, J. W. Plethysmographic experiments on the vasomotor nerves of the limbs. Jour. of Physiol., 1886, vol. vii, 416–450.

1890. Dr. Bowditch and Warren, J. W. The knee-jerk and its physiological modifications. Jour. of Physiol., 1890, vol. xi, 25–64.

1890. Uber den nachweis der Unermüdlichkeit des Säugethiernerven. Arch. of Physiol., 1890, 505–508.