Ross Granville Harrison

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Ross Granville Harrison
Ross Granville Harrison.jpg
BornJanuary 13, 1870
Germantown, Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedSeptember 30, 1959(1959-09-30) (aged 89)
New Haven, Connecticut
Alma materJohns Hopkins University (BA 1889, PhD 1894)
University of Bonn (MD 1899)
Known fortissue culture
AwardsFellow of the Royal Society[1]
Scientific career
Fieldsbiology and anatomy
InstitutionsBryn Mawr College(1894–1985)
Yale (1907–1938)

Ross Granville Harrison (January 13, 1870 – September 30, 1959) was an American biologist and anatomist credited as the first to work successfully with artificial tissue culture.


Harrison received his early schooling in Baltimore, where his family had moved from Germantown, Philadelphia. Announcing in his mid teens a resolve to study medicine, he entered Johns Hopkins University in 1886, receiving his BA degree in 1889 at the age of nineteen. In 1890, he worked as a laboratory assistant for the United States Fish Commission in Woodshole, Massachusetts[2], studying the embryology of the oyster with his close friend E. G. Conklin and H. V. Wilson.[3]

In 1891, he participated in a marine zoology field trip to the Chesapeake Zoological Laboratory[2] in Jamaica. Attracted to the work of Moritz Nussbaum, he worked in Bonn, Germany during 1892-1893, 1895-1986, and 1898 and became an M.D. there in 1899. Harrison gained his Ph.D. in 1894 after courses in physiology with H. Newell Martin and morphology with William Keith Brooks. He devoted study to mathematics, astronomy and also the Latin and Greek classics. He worked with T. H. Morgan as a lecturer in morphology at Bryn Mawr College. He married Ida Lange (1874-1967) in Altona, Germany on January 9, 1896 and they had a family of five children.


Between his studies in Bonn, Harrison taught morphology at Bryn Mawr College with T. H. Morgan from 1894-1895. He was an instructor at Johns Hopkins University from 1896-1897 and became an associate at the university from 1897-1899.[2] From 1899 until 1907, he was the Associate Professor of Anatomy, teaching histology and embryology. By this time he had contributed more than twenty papers and made the acquaintance of many leading biologists. His work on tissue culture became very influential.

He then moved to New Haven to take up a post at Yale University, where he was Bronson Professor of Comparative Anatomy, participating through to 1913 in a revitalisation and re-organisation of the several faculties of which he became a member. He undertook further studies at the United States Fish Commission in the early years of the century. In 1913 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.[4] From 1914 until his retirement in 1938, Harrison was the Medical School's chief advisor on staffing.

The first world war was not a happy time for Harrison, with his pacifist leanings and his German wife and studies, but he persevered with embryology, working upon the symmetries of development. By means of the dissection of embryos followed by transplantation and rotatation of the limb bud he demonstrated that the main axes of the developing limb are determined independently and at slightly different times, determination of the anterior-posterior axis preceding that of the dorsal-ventral axis.

He successfully cultured frog neuroblasts in a lymph medium and thereby took the first step toward current research on precursor and stem cells. He was considered for a Nobel prize for his work on nerve-cell outgrowth, which helped form the modern functional understanding of the nervous system, and he contributed to surgical tissue transplant technique.

After his retirement he was called upon several times as an advisor to the U.S. government and his organisational skills were of paramount importance in establishing links between scientists, the government and the media. He was Chairman of the National Research Council from 1938 to 1946. He was a member of the Science Committee of the National Resources Planning Board in 1938 and chairman of the Committee on Civil Service Improvement in 1939. He was awarded many prizes and officiated in many learned societies.[5] He edited the Journal of Experimental Zoology until 1946. He also served on the board of trustees for Science Service, now known as Society for Science & the Public, from 1938–1956.

Harrison gave a Croonian Lecture in 1933: The origin and development of the nervous system studied by the methods of experimental embryology.[6] He was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society in 1940.[7] He gave the 1948-49 Silliman Memorial Lecture: Organization and Development of the Embryo, published posthumously in 1969.[8]

Although a keen morphogeneticist and an admirer of Goethe, Harrison himself did not philosophise much in his papers and, being somewhat reserved and diffident in his social dealings despite his warm feelings for his students' attainment, did not enjoy lecturing but chiefly confined himself to organisation, publication (his textbook illustrations have been highly praised) and patient experiment. He remained a keen walker all his life.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Abercrombie, M. (1961). "Ross Granville Harrison. 1870-1959". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 7: 110–126. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1961.0009.
  2. ^ a b c "Harrison, Ross Granville (1870-1959), biologist | American National Biography". doi:10.1093/anb/9780198606697.001.0001/anb-9780198606697-e-1300707.
  3. ^ J. S. Nicholas, Ross Granville Harrison 1870—1959 A Biographical Memoir, National Academy of Sciences, 1961, Accessed May 2008 at
  4. ^ J. S. Nicholas, op. cit.
  5. ^ Thomas L. Lentz, History of the Department of Cell Biology, Yale University School of Medicine.
  6. ^ "Croonian Lecture". Royal Society. Retrieved 4 April 2015.
  7. ^ "Fellows Details". Royal Society. Retrieved 4 April 2015.
  8. ^ Lentz, Thomas L. (1970). "Organization and Development of the Embryo". Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. PMC 2591690.

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