Henry P. Bowditch

1st APS President (1888 and 1889-95)

Henry P. Bowditch
(b.1840- d.1911)

Henry P. Bowditch (l-3) was a Boston Brahmin with all the favorable attributes of those who place public service over private interests. He was born in Boston on April 4, 1840 and had his primary school education at a private school in Boston. He graduated from Harvard College in 1861 and entered the Lawrence Scientific School to study chemistry and natural history. However, he could not resist the call to arms and joined the First Massachusetts Cavalry in November 1861. During the engagement at New Hope Church in 1863 he was shot in the right forearm; his injury was to have a considerable impact on physiology. Because of the wound, he was discharged from the army in February 1864 but promptly reentered the service as a major in the Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry, a colored regiment. He resigned his command in 1865 and returned to the Lawrence Scientific School to resume his study of comparative anatomy under Professor Jeffries Wyman. In 1866 Bowditch attended Brown-Sequard’s lectures in Cambridge, which awakened his interest in medicine as an experimental science. Bowditch received his A.M. degree in 1866 and his M.D. from Harvard in 1868. Following graduation, Bowditch went to Paris to combine scientific pursuits under Brown-Siquard with clinical training. When Brown-Sequard repeatedly delayed the establishment of his laboratory, Bowditch began to study histology with Ranvier and physiology with Bernard.

Although Bowditch was drawn toward pure science, he was concerned that he would not be able to support himself. However, his father, a wealthy Boston merchant, assured him of financial support to obtain a thorough physiological education. With this security, Bowditch began to plan his future career. Bowditch greatly admired Ranvier and Bernard but was appalled at the lack of financial support they had, and he had become increasingly impressed with the future of German medical sciences. He noted that “the French government lavishes millions on the army but leaves science to starve and freeze.” A chance meeting with Professor Wilhelm Kiihne, who had worked with Ludwig, persuaded him to go to Leipzig for his training. Ludwig suggested several problems in cardiac physiology for Bowditch. Ludwig, who had recently developed the kymograph for the recording of physiological events, was delighted when Bowditch added an automatic timing device by the use of a metronome. Under Ludwig’s guidance, Bowditch did the most important work of his career, which culminated in two papers entitled “Uber die Eigenthumlichkeiten der Reizbarkeit, welche die*.Muskelfasern des Herzens zeigen” and “Uber die Interferenz des retardierenden und beschleunigenden Herznerven.” The first paper remains a classic, and physiologists still refer to Bowditch’s description of the “treppe-effect” and the “all-or-none” law. Interestingly, although Ludwig had suggested the problem and had provided the laboratory facilities and funding, he generously did not put his name on Bowditch’s papers.

While Bowditch was working in Leipzig, Eliot was named president of Harvard. After several invitations from Eliot to join the faculty at the Harvard Medical School, Bowditch accepted the appointment as assistant professor of physiology in 1871. Before leaving Leipzig, Bowditch married Selma Knauth and purchased equipment for his laboratory in Boston.

Bowditch’s laboratory was open to all members of the Harvard Medical faculty and student body. He continued his studies on circulation and vasomotor control and branched into neurophysiology and then into psychology. He also began a classic series of studies on the growth of children.

Bowditch gave freely of his time for teaching, for committee work, and for administration at the Harvard Medical School, duties that drew him away from his research. He was also a member of the Boston School Committee, a Trustee of the Boston Public Library, and served on the State Commission on Alcoholism. Bowditch was a staunch defender of medical research and was an eloquent spokesman in the battle against the antivivisectionists. He was instrumental in the planning and fund raising for the Boylston Street medical facility and the Longwood Quadrangle. He was the first nonclinical dean of the Harvard Medical School, serving from 1883 to 1893. He was one of the founders of the American Physiological Society and served as its first president, 1888-1889. He became president against from 1891 to 1895, the year Roentgen discovered the X rays. In 1896, one of the first X rays taken in Boston revealed the bullet fragments that Bowditch had carried in his arm since the Civil War. It is not surprising; therefore, that Bowditch suggested that W. B. Cannon, a first-year student, use the newly discovered X rays to study the mechanism of deglutition in the conscious animals. In 1906 Cannon succeeded Bowditch as Chairman of the Department. By this time Bowditch was considerably limited by his Parkinsonism. The disease was progressive and he died on March 13, 1911.

By A. Cilfford Barger
The Physiologist Vol. 30, No. 4 1987