Centers and Peripheries: The Development of British Physiology, 1870-1914 [Book Review]

Journal of the History of Biology 21 (3):473 - 500 (1988)

By 1910 the Cambridge University physiology department had become the kernel of British physiology. Between 1909 and 1914 an astonishing number of young and talented scientists passed through the laboratory. The University College department was also a stimulating place of study under the dynamic leadership of Ernest Starling.I have argued that the reasons for this metropolitan axis within British physiology lie with the social structure of late-Victorian and Edwardian higher education. Cambridge, Oxford, and University College London were national institutions attracting students from all over England and Wales. In contrast, the provincial colleges drew their clientele from relatively narrow geographic radii. Generally, also, these institutions were regarded as socially inferior to the longer-established universities.A brief survey of the biographies of some British physiologists demonstrates how physiology, as an occupation, became, over the later decades of the century, socially elite. The scientists who achieved full-time posts in the 1870s generally came from somewhat marginal backgrounds. Foster, like his mentors T. H. Huxley and William Sharpey, came from a non-conformist family. Edward Schäfer was also a dissenter and, like Foster, began his professional career as a general practitioner.Physiologists of the succeeding generation, however, came from wealthy families with established intellectual traditions. John Scott Haldane, nephew of John Burdon Sanderson, was the brother of the politician R. B. Haldane and uncle of the historian A. R. B. Haldane.71 Joseph Barcroft was one of the most affluent of all physiologists.72 His family's wealth derived from linen manufacturing. He attended the Ley's School Cambridge, where his schoolmates included Henry Dale, later Director of the National Institute for Medical Research; F. A. Bainbridge, who eventually became Professor of Physiology at St. Bartholomew's Hospital; and the Cambridge historian J. H. Clapham. A. V. Hill, Professor of Physiology at Manchester and, subsequently, London, married Margaret Keynes, sister of John Maynard Keynes and niece of Sir Walter Langdon Brown, Professor of Physic at Cambridge. Margaret Keynes's younger brother, the surgeon Sir Geoffrey Keynes, married a granddaughter of Charles Darwin; their son Richard Keynes also became a physiologist at Cambridge.These families were part of a new class emerging during the late Victorian period, descendants of the great reforming radicals of the 1830s, who had begun to achieve power through positions in the universities, the professions, and the civil service. Their social prestige rested upon their intellectual expertise. Physiology was an appealing research discipline to these groups because of its clear dissociation from industry and commerce. And because physiology's “practical” face was medicine, its acceptability was reinforced by professional ties.The nature of the Physiological Society confirms this image of physiology as an elite science. By the turn of the century the Society had taken on some of the characteristics of a dining club. The scientific meetings were generally followed by dinner: if the Society met at Oxford, they were entertained at Burdon Sanderson's college, Magdalen.73 Through a “black ball” system, unwanted candidates could be excluded. In 1912, when the question of admitting foreigners was discussed, E. H. Starling wrote to Edward Schäfer: “the Society has very much in it the nature of a club, and a certain amount of personal knowledge of the candidate is always desirable.”74.The developing institutional structure of physiology in late Victorian Britain indicates, therefore, that we must look beyond the achievements of individuals and departments to understand why physiology flourished. The discipline became part of a new social order in which the professional middle classes assumed increasing power. These groups valued intellectual skill, especially in the pure scienes, as forces both for self-advancement and for progress within society
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DOI 10.1007/BF00144092
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Making Way for Molecular Biology: Institutionalizing and Managing Reform of Biological Science in a UK University During the 1980s and 1990s. [REVIEW]Duncan Wilson & Gaël Lancelot - 2008 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 39 (1):93-108.
Editorial.Paul Farber - 2006 - Journal of the History of Biology 39 (2):235-236.

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