Henry Pickering Bowditch

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Henry Pickering Bowditch
PSM V78 D628 Henry Pickering Bowditch.png
Born April 4, 1840
Died March 13, 1911
Occupation Dean, Harvard Medical School

Henry Pickering Bowditch (April 4, 1840 – March 13, 1911) was an American soldier, physician, physiologist, and dean of the Harvard Medical School.[1][2] Following his teacher Carl Ludwig, he promoted the training of medical practitioners in a context of physiological research. His teaching career at Harvard spanned 35 years.

Early life[edit]

Henry P. Bowditch was born to the Massachusetts Bowditch family, noted for the mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch, his grandfather, and the archaeologist Charles Pickering Bowditch, his brother. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts to Jonathan Ingersoll Bowditch and Lucy Orne Nichols Bowditch. In 1861, he graduated from Harvard College, and then entered Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School. His studies there were interrupted by his service for the Union army in the United States Civil War, where he rose to the rank of major in the Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry.[2] After graduation from Harvard Medical School in 1868, he went to Paris to study with Claude Bernard. In Bernard’s lab he worked alongside Louis-Antoine Ranvier, later known for neuroanatomy, and Étienne-Jules Marey who promoted the use of photography to capture physiological dynamics. According to Walter Bradford Cannon, when in Paris, Bowditch joined with fellow Bostonians John Collins Warren, Jr., William James, and Charles Emerson for frog-hunting parties.

Bowditch continued his European studies in Bonn with Wilhelm Kuhne and Max Schultze. Ultimately he proceeded to Leipzig where Carl Ludwig was conducting the program that Bowditch would emulate at Harvard. Bowditch impressed Ludwig by constructing an improvement on the kymograph then in use. His studies in Leipzig brought him into contact with, among others, Ray Lankester, Angelo Mosso, Hugo Kronecker and Carl von Voit.


Bowditch was appointed assistant professor of physiology at Harvard in 1871.[2] While still in Germany, he purchased European materials to support the investigative training program he planned. And dramatically, on 9 September 1871, just days before sailing for Boston, he married Selma Knuth of Leipzig. The Bowditch laboratory at Harvard, the first physiological laboratory in the United States,[1] began modestly in attic rooms allotted to him. Bowditch's career at Harvard was parallel to that of William James who instituted his program of experimental psychology in 1875. Bowditch and James represented the New Education espoused by Charles William Eliot, Harvard's President. In 1876 Bowditch was promoted to full professor.[2] In 1887 he co-founded and was the first president of the American Physiological Society.[3] At Harvard he rose to the position of dean of the medical school, serving from 1883 to 1893.[1] In 1903 he was honoured with the George Higginson chair. After 35 years teaching for Harvard, he retired in 1906, and died in Jamaica Plains, Massachusetts in 1913.[1] His students included Walter Bradford Cannon, Charles Sedgwick Minot and G. Stanley Hall.

Manfred Bowditch, Henry's son, gave a personal description of the man he knew as father. Bowditch did much experimentation in a cottage at an Adirondack camp at the head of Keene Valley which bore his name.[4] There, with a well-equipped workshop the son witnessed considerable "inventiveness and manual skill" that Henry also applied in the physiology lab.[citation needed]

Bowditch was granted honorary degrees from five universities: Cambridge, Edinburgh, Toronto, Pennsylvania, and Harvard.


Henry Pickering Bowditch was known for his physiological work on cardiac contraction and knee jerk.[5][6][7] He also developed an interest in anthropometry, and showed that nutrition and environmental factors contribute to physiological development. Bowditch can be seen as a link between the milieu interieur of Claude Bernard, his teacher, and homeostasis as developed by his student Walter Cannon.


  1. ^ a b c d Barnhart, Clarence L., ed. (1954). "Bowditch, Henry Pickering". New Century Cyclopedia of Names, Volume One, A – Emin Pasha. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts. p. 606. 
  2. ^ a b c d Herringshaw, Thomas William, ed. (1909). "Bowditch, Henry Pickering". Herringshaw's national library of American biography, Volume 1, Aaron–Clason. Chicago, Illinois: American Publishers' Association. p. 385. 
  3. ^ "APS Founders". American Physiological Society. Retrieved 22 March 2015. Three of them, Henry Pickering Bowditch, S. Weir Mitchell, and Henry Newell Martin, were signers of the original letter of invitation to attend the organizational meeting. 
  4. ^ Bryan, John M. (2005). Maine Cottages: Fred L. Savage and the Architecture of Mount Desert. Springer Verlag. p. 48. 
  5. ^ Ulijaszek, Stanley J.; Johnston, Francis E.; Preece, M. A. (1998). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Growth and Development. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-56046-2. 
  6. ^ Short biography, bibliography, and links on digitized sources in the Virtual Laboratory of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
  7. ^ Howe, Mark A. (1968). Later Years of the Saturday Club 1870-1920. Ayer Publishing. ISBN 0-8369-0548-2. 


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