Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/May 1898/Sketch of Russell H. Chittenden
IN his address at the celebration of the semicentennial of the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University, President Daniel C. Oilman spoke of physiological chemistry as one of the latest additions to the subjects taught there and as a department in which the school had risen to the foremost place. "Nowhere else in this country," said the speaker, "not in many European laboratories, has such work been attempted and accomplished as is now in progress on Hillhouse Avenue, unobserved, no doubt, by those who daily pass the laboratory door, but watched with welcoming anticipation wherever physiology and medicine are prosecuted in the modern spirit of research." The creator and master mind of this establishment is Russell Henry Chittenden, professor of physiological chemistry.
Professor Chittenden is a descendant of William Chittenden, who came to America from the parish of Cranbrook, Kent, England, in 1639, and settled in what is now known as Guilford, Connecticut. Both his paternal and maternal grandfathers fought in the Revolutionary War. He is a son of Horace H. Chittenden, and was born in New Haven, Connecticut, February 18, 1856.
He received his primary education in the public schools of New Haven, and later entered the private school of Mr. French, where he was fitted for college. Even at this time his aptitude for teaching was so developed that he was able to defray his expenses in the school by giving instruction to the younger pupils in the rudiments of Latin and Greek and in mathematics. His original intention had been to pursue classical studies, but a growing fondness for natural science with a leaning toward medicine as a profession led to his entering the scientific department of Yale. He was graduated from the Sheffield Scientific School in 1875 with the degree of Ph. B., when nineteen years of age. His graduating thesis was considered sufficiently noteworthy to be published in the American Journal of Science, and it was also translated into German and published in full in Liebig's Annalen der Chemie, Leipsic. As an undergraduate in the Scientific School he evinced great devotion and aptitude in the study of chemistry, and became especially interested in chemistry as applied to physiology. His success is shown by the fact that in the last year of his undergraduate study he was appointed a laboratory assistant in chemistry, to carry forward such instruction in its physiological bearings and applications as was then possible. In this connection it is to be remembered that the Sheffield Scientific School was one of the first institutions in the country to recognize the importance of a preliminary scientific education for young men intending to study medicine, and in the annual catalogue for 1869-'70 reference is made to an appropriate scheme of study specially designed for those expecting to pursue the courses in the medical schools. This was the beginning of the so-called "biological course" in the school with the development of which Professor Chittenden has been closely identified. The existing laboratories of chemistry, physics, zoölogy, and botany at Yale had made it easy to establish a course in general biology at this time, well adapted for providing instruction in branches especially fitted for men intending to enter the medical profession, but in which facilities in physiology and physiological chemistry were still almost wholly wanting.
The general character of the work done in this department is fittingly recognized by President Gilman, who says, in his semi-centennial address: "One of the most advantageous of these courses has been preliminary to medicine. To follow the healing arts, which have made during the last half century such wonderful advances, discipline is requisite in physics, chemistry, and physiology with prolonged laboratory practice and increasing familiarity with the normal functions of organic life. Such courses were projected here five and twenty years ago, and gradually the medical colleges are discovering their value. The Johns Hopkins Medical School, for example, allows no student to enter as a candidate for its four years' course unless he has had such training, substantially as that here offered many years ago, and never so advantageously as now. Names might be cited of eminent physicians, leaders in physiology, pathology, physiological chemistry, and hygiene, who received their bent from the preliminary medical course of the Sheffield School."
Physiological chemistry was, indeed, at that time given very scant attention in this country, and its importance in biology and practical medicine was only beginning to be felt even in Germany.
Up to 1874 only an occasional student availed himself of the opportunities afforded by the new course in biology in the Sheffield Scientific School, and physiology and physiological chemistry were taught only in name. In the class of 1875, however, there were six or seven students taking the new course, and it was decided to start an independent laboratory of physiological chemistry. Nominally under the charge of one of the professors of chemistry, the laboratory instruction was really placed in the hands of the inexperienced and youthful assistant, who, although not yet a graduate, had manifested remarkable ability in both acquiring and imparting knowledge in this direction. The laboratory was a single small room provided with the simplest of equipments, but the young man was full of enthusiasm, and by hard and persistent work managed to keep ahead of his class and pilot them safely through a moderate course of study.
Immediately after his graduation Mr. Chittenden was appointed instructor in physiological chemistry, which position he held until 1878, acquiring each year added experience and facility. Further, each year witnessed the completion and publication of some piece of scientific research in his favorite branch. Having now made up his mind to devote himself to physiological chemistry, and feeling the necessity of a broader knowledge of the subject than could be acquired in this country, he decided to go abroad, and accordingly 1878 and 1879 were spent in Germany, chiefly at Heidelberg with Professor Kühne, where the time was occupied mainly with the study of experimental physiology, physiological chemistry, and histology. Not only were routine courses pursued, but Mr. Chittenden's natural bent for scientific investigation led to constant work in the laboratory, with the result that in 1879 three papers on physiological subjects were published by him in the Untersuchungen aus dem physiologischen Institute der Universität Heidelberg, and one in the English Journal of Physiology. Returning to America in the fall of 1879, Mr. Chittenden took his former position at New Haven, more fully equipped for his life work. The establishment at this time of the American Chemical Journal led to an invitation to write a series of reports upon recent progress in physiological chemistry, which were continued for several years.
In 1880 he received from Yale the degree of Ph. D., and in 1882 he was appointed professor of physiological chemistry at Yale, and member of the governing board of the Sheffield Scientific School. In this same year he received an urgent invitation from Professor Kühne to come to Heidelberg and join with him in a series of investigations upon the physiology of digestion. Accordingly, on the 1st of June he started again for Germany, where he spent the summer months in the Heidelberg laboratory with Kühne, returning to New Haven in the fall in time to take up his routine work at the opening of the college year. This was the beginning of a series of investigations undertaken jointly with Kühne and carried on for many years by correspondence, which resulted in a long list of contributions bearing on the chemico-physiological problems of gastric and pancreatic digestion, published mainly in the Zeitschrift für Biologie, in Munich. The facts thus acquired threw great light upon many of the darker problems of gastric and pancreatic proteolysis, and constitute at present the basis of our physiological knowledge concerning the changes which proteid foods undergo in digestion. During these years Professor Chittenden's activity was very great. Besides enlarging and modifying his course of instruction to the students of biology, and attracting graduate students to his laboratory, independent research work was continually carried on, with the result that in the years 1883 to 1888 three volumes of Studies from the Laboratory of Physiological Chemistry, of from one hundred and sixty to two hundred pages each, were published, containing the results of his investigations carried on by the help of the graduate students and assistants he had collected about him. The value of these researches may be inferred from the constant reference made to them in all standard text-books on physiological chemistry.
In 1890 Professor Chittenden became one of the associate editors of the English Journal of Physiology, edited by Michael Poster, and for several years thereafter the researches from the laboratory appeared regularly in this journal. In 1885 to 1887 he wrote a number of articles on physiological topics for the Reference Handbook of the Medical Sciences. In 1890 he was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences. In the revision of Webster's International Dictionary he was charged with the editing of the definitions in general biology, physiology, and physiological chemistry. In 1894 he delivered the Cartwright Lectures before the Alumni Association of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New York, the subject being Digestive Proteolysis. These lectures were published in book form in 1895. When the Journal of Experimental Medicine was started, in 1896, he became one of the associate editors for physiology.
He has been on the council of the American Physiological Society ever since its foundation in 1887, and has been president of the society since 1895. He was president of the American Society of Naturalists for 1893. He has read various papers before the New York Academy of Medicine. He was active in the establishment of the American Journal of Physiology—the first number of which appeared in January of the present year—and is one of its editors. He was one of the original members of the Committee of Fifty for the investigation of the drink problem, and has contributed, with the aid of his coworkers in the physiological laboratory, two important papers containing the results of various researches on the influence of alcoholic drinks upon the chemical processes of digestion, and their effect upon secretion, absorption, etc. He served as one of the vice-presidents of the Congress of American Physicians and Surgeons, held at Washington, May, 1897, at which he presented a paper on "internal secretions" considered from a chemico-physiological point of view.
Professor Chittenden has always been especially interested in bringing about a wider recognition of the importance of the chemicophysiological side of biology. He regards the physiological side as equally important with the morphological side of biology, but finds only scanty recognition of the fact in too many of the courses in biology, and only rarely tangible evidence of appreciation of the chemical side of physiology; and yet, as he has pointed out in an address before the first Pan-American Medical Congress, held at Washington in 1893, "there is hardly a question either in physiology or in the science or practice of medicine that does not draw to a greater or less extent upon physiological chemistry for its solution. . . . In every medical school in the land there should be a well-appointed laboratory for the practice and study of physiological chemistry in every direction bearing on medical science. So, too, in every well-rounded biological course there should be ample facilities for instruction and experimentation, not only in pure physiology but likewise in physiological chemistry, so that a broader and clearer conception of physiology may be obtained than is possible by the presentation of a single side of the subject" Professor Chittenden has labored faithfully to embody the principles expressed in these views and give them practical effect in the work of the biological course at Yale University. Morphology, comparative anatomy, general biology, botany, zoology, etc., are by no means ignored, but physiology and physiological chemistry have been made an integral part of the instruction in biology given to the undergraduate students in the Sheffield Scientific School.
The importance of physiological chemistry as an adjunct to the medical course is forcibly presented in the address to which we have referred, where the sovereignty of morphology, which had given the course a somewhat unsymmetrical development, is said to have reached its climax, and the clinicians are declared to be "even now looking to physiological chemistry to aid them in unraveling many of the hidden processes of life, thus helping to gain clews to clearer methods of diagnosis and more rational lines of treatment." Recognizing the great gains that have accrued to medicine from the marvelous development of pathological investigation and from anatomy and histology, he added: "If, however, a small fraction of the time and energy given to these branches of medicine had been devoted to the simultaneous study and investigation of the chemical processes of the body in health and disease, I am sure equally important results would have been obtained, and, as a final outcome, a far more satisfactory explanation of many phenomena for which anatomy, histology, and pathology have thus far given only incomplete or unsatisfactory explanations. It is from a judicious combination of the results obtainable by different lines of inquiry that the broadest and most definite, as well as the most accurate, deductions are to be drawn. In estimating the value of the various aspects of the study, it is shown that our knowledge of the composition of the tissues, organs, and fluids of the organism is derived entirely from chemical study and investigation. This is plainly self-evident; but when we consider how far-reaching are the facts thus obtained in promoting our understanding of the laws of growth of the human body, of the relationships of the various physiologically active and inactive tissues, of their development, of the character and extent of their activity, and of all the variations incident to pathological conditions, we see at once the great importance of this knowledge in aiding us to a rightful interpretation of physiological laws. The great progress made of late years in our knowledge of the various digestive juices of the body, of their mode of action, of the character of the products resulting from the digestion of the various classes of food stuffs, of the conditions favorable and unfavorable to ferment action—these and many other things connected with the study of digestion in its broadest sense have all been accomplished as the results of long-continued and laborious experiments—results that have not only helped to give us broader and clearer ideas of the physiology of digestion, but have made possible much of the advance in the diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the alimentary tract" Then there are the chemical composition of muscle and nerve tissue and the processes going on in them, with their influence on heat production and on proteid and other forms of metabolism; the broad question of nutrition in general, with its bearing on health and disease—"in great part chemical problems, partial solution of which has already afforded results of inestimable value"; and "the part chemistry has played in bringing about our present understanding of the manner in which micro-organisms act in the animal body, with its bearing upon the whole question of infectious diseases, the discovery of the production of distinct chemical poisons by specific patliogenic bacteria, with the impetus this fact has given to the search for methods of producing immunity. Then, too, we must not forget to recall the great aid chemistry has lent to therapeutics, not only giving us methods for the preparation of purer and more definite products, but opening up methods of studying the physiological action of drugs which have greatly advanced the growth of scientific pharmacology."
A course in physiological chemistry worthy of the name should extend. Professor Chittenden thought, at least through half the college year, and preferably through a whole year, with an average of fifteen hours of laboratory work a week, interspersed with lectures, recitations, and demonstrations. It could be advantageously undertaken only by men who already have knowledge of general, analytical, and organic chemistry, physics, anatomy, and histology, together with more or less familiarity with general physiology. An outline of the order of such a course as existed in the author's mind is given in the address, with the observation that, to make it of the highest value, no opportunity should be lost to show the physiological bearing of all the results obtained; to try and instill into the mind of the student the idea that the facts of physiological chemistry have a wide application.
The biological course (purely optional), started originally in the Scientific School, is now open also to those junior and senior students in the academical department who are desirous of taking this line of work. Naturally, the majority of the students electing this course of study, extending through two years of the college course, are intending to enter upon the study of medicine after graduation, and it is interesting to note that the graduates of this course almost invariably take a high standing in their professional study, thereby indicating the beneficial effects of their biological training.
To-day the Sheffield laboratory of physiological chemistry is a very different structure from the laboratory of twenty-three years ago. Situated in what was formerly the Sheffield mansion, on Hillhouse Avenue, nine good-sized rooms are required to care for the many students working there, while one assistant professor and three instructors aid in carrying on the instruction given.
In addition to his duties at Yale, Professor Chittenden has recently been made lecturer on physiological chemistry at Columbia University.
The list of Professor Chittenden's publications to date contains ninety-three titles of papers, etc., nearly all contributions to scientific journals and the proceedings of scientific societies, and nearly all bearing on physiological chemistry or subjects related to it.