Russell Henry Chittenden

3rd APS President (1896-1904)

Russell Henry Chittenden
(b. 1856- d.1943)

Russell Henry Chittenden was the third president of the American Physiological Society and participated in the origin of the Society. Because of his eminent role in the Society’s affairs (he served as president for nine terms: 1896-1904), it is appropriate that Chittenden is included in a symposium on “The Five Founders of the APS.”

Chittenden was influential through his involvement in the development of physiological sciences at Yale and elsewhere in the United States (l-3). Chittenden lived his entire life in New Haven, and his professional life was always in association with Yale. The Medical Institution of Yale College was begun in 1810, accepted its first students (37) in 1813, and became a part of the Sheffield Scientific School (SHEFF) in 1861. After several name changes, it became in 1915 the Yale University School of Medicine. SHEFF instituted in 1870 a comparative physiology course in addition to one “preparatory to medical studies.” Chittenden evidently taught in these courses throughout his career at Yale/SHEFF (he retired in 1922). Chittenden’s primary interest was teaching physiological chemistry, a course he introduced into the SHEFF curriculum in 1874.

Chittenden’s ancestors came from the County of Kent, England, settling in Guilford, Connecticut in 1639, with subsequent generations remaining in Connecticut since that time. Chittenden was born February 18, 1856, and died December 26, 1943, in New Haven. While he was the only child of parents of modest means, his education in local public and private schools was preparatory for college.

He entered SHEFF/Yale in 1872, graduating with a B. Phil. in 1875. He was on the faculty and did research in SHEFF from 1875 onward. He spent a year’s leave (1878/79) in the physiological laboratory of Willy Kiihne in Heidelberg, Germany, an association that was to last until Kiihne’s death in 1900. In 1880, Chittenden received a Ph.D. in physiological chemistry from Yale. He was appointed in 1882, at the age of 25, Professor of Physiological Chemistry in SHEFF, becoming Director of SHEFF from 1898 until 1922. Important for the development of physiology and physiological chemistry in America was Chittenden’s practice to influence unusually gifted students to study for a Ph.D. and/or to do laboratory research work as part of their medical training. He was directly responsible for training a generation of influential and distinguished scholars at Yale and at other institutions.

Chittenden’s research work was primarily focused on various aspects of the chemistry of digestion, particularly proteolytic processes, and the intermediate products and enzymes involved. His undergraduate thesis work (1874) identified glycogen and glycine as the principal sources that made scallops sweeter after being stored in the larder overnight (a problem posed by his thesis advisor). He also studied the toxicology of food preservatives (Na benzoate, saccharin), alcohol metabolism, and aspects of nutrition, including the experimental determination of optimum protein requirements in humans. A complete Chittenden bibliography is available in reference (1). Chittenden’s professional accomplishments were recognized by his receiving many prestigious awards and honors, as well as serving on the editorial boards of many journals, including the American Journal of Physiology and the Journal of Biological Chemistry. His scientific contributions are today mainly of historical interest since much of his work has been eclipsed by the subsequent developments in protein chemistry and the 82 identification of essential amino acids and vitamins in man.

As has already been recounted (4), the founding meeting of The American Physiological Society took place in New York City on December 30, 1887. A copy of the original invitation (5) is reprinted in Figure 1, on the left hand side. While Russell Henry Chittenden attended this organizational meeting with 16 others, neither his name nor that of Yale appears in Figure 1, with the letter or on the scrolls demarcating Bowditch, Mitchell and Martin. Evidently there were three, not five, founders. [Perhaps of parenthetical interest, Chittenden was a founder of The American Society of Biological Chemists (6), serving in 1907 as its first president.] It is also clear in Figure 1 that the 50th Anniversary    celebration took place in 1938. The question is whether the 1938 celebration took place a year late or the 100th celebration, a year early.

By Joseph F. Hoffman
The Physiologist Vol. 30, No. 4 1987
pp. 81-82