Sunday, June 27, 2010

Thomas Say

Thomas Say was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on June 27, 1787 the son of Benjamin Say, a physician and former state senator, and Ann Bonsal, the granddaughter of botanist John Bartram. Say's ancestors on his father's side had been in Pennsylvania since its founding. Say's mother died during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 along with his sister Polly. In May 1799, when Say was 12 he was one of the first pupils to attend the Westtown Boarding School, a newly established Quaker school. After finishing school (at 15 as was the custom at the time) Say helped his father in his apothecary business, and was eventually joined by John Speakman, to found Speakman and Say, an apothecary. It was Speakman who ran the business because Say was often distracted by the pursuit of insect and butterfly specimens. Due to his distraction from the business the apothecary failed.

A self taught naturalist, Say as a boy collected specimens for his great-uncle William Bartram. In 1812 he became a charter member and founder of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Say lived in the rooms of the academy, sleeping underneath the skeleton of a horse. During the War of 1812, say briefly served as a private in the First City Troop. Say only served for slightly over three months in federal service, as the Troop was released from federal service at the end of the war, although Say remained a member.

In 1817 the Academy began publication of a journal, to which Say was a member of the publication committee and a frequent contributor. In 1818 Say joined an expedition to Georgia and Florida (a Spanish possession at the time) several other members of the Academy. The expedition was forced to return home for fear of attacks from native Americans. In 1819-20 Say served as zoologist for Major Stephen Harriman Long's expedition to the Rocky Mountains and and the tributaries to the Missouri River, and in 1823 Say again served as zoologist for Long's expedition to the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

In 1825 Say moved to New Harmony, Indiana at the urging of his friend and patron of the Academy William MacLure. Say, not a member Robert Owen's communistic community in New Harmony, lived as a hermit, collecting specimens and making notes. In New Harmony Say married Lucy Way Sistare, an artist and illustrator and later the first female member of the Academy. With Sistare's help Say was able to complete three volumes on the insects of America and six on the shellfish of North America.

During his career Say described over 1000 beetles and three hundred other insects. For his work he is called the "Father of American Entomology" and he has several species have been named after him.

Say died on October 10, 1834 in New Harmony.


Coates, Benjamin H.; A Biographical Sketch of Thomas Say Esc.; Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia Press; 1835

Weiss, Harry B. and Ziegler, Grace M.; Thomas Say, Early American Naturalist; Ayer Publishing; 1978

Thomas Say, Wikipedia Entry

Sunday, June 20, 2010

George Redmayne Murray

George Redmayne Murray was born on June 20, 1865 in Newcastle-on-Tyne, the oldest son of William Murray, one of the leading physicians and general practitioners in northern England at the time, and Frances Mary Murray nee Redmayne. He went to Eton and then Trinity College Cambridge, graduating in 1886 with first class honors. He did his clinical work at University College Hospital London, winning the Fellows junior clinical silver medal and senior clinical gold medal and passing his final examinations in 1888. He graduated MB in 1889 and finished his MD in 1896. With a career in experimental medicine in mind he visited clinics in Paris and Berlin between 1897 and 1898, returning to Newcastle in 1891 to work as a pathologist at the Hospital for Sick Children and lecturer in bacteriology and pathology at the University of Durham. It was while he was working at this position that he had the insight that would bring him fame.

Murry was working with Victor Horsely, one of his instructors at University College Hospital. Horsely was studying the thyroid gland, a structure that until about twenty years earlier had no known function. Horsely had found that myxedema (myxoedema is the British spelling) in animals could be cured by grafts of animal thyroid glands. Murray suggested that human patients with myxedema could be treated with injected extracts of sheep thyroid glands. This treatment was successful and Murray published in 1891. Murray is generally given credit for this discovery even though a similar success was reported in Lisbon, Portugal in 1890.

The thyroid gland, the largest endocrine gland in the human body, is located in the throat. It secretes hormones that affect how the quickly the body uses energy, synthesizes proteins, and how sensitive the body is to other hormones, affecting just about every cell in the body. Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland does not secrete enough of its hormones to maintain normal body functions and symptoms include, among others, myxedema, an increased amount of connective tissue in the skin and dermal edema (puffy skin). Today hypothyroidism is treated by taking synthetic or animal thyroid hormones orally.

After his discovery there was a renewed interest in myxedema and cretinism and Murray wrote on both subjects. His discovery is one of the first examples of hormone replacement therapy and he is regarded as one of the founders of endocrinology, the study of hormones and hormone secreting organs. For his work Murray received many honors, including F.R.C.P. in 1898, Goulstonian lecturer in 1899 and Bradshaw lecturer in 1905. He became professor of medicine at Manchester University 1908, only the second time that someone from outside had been brought in. His tenure was interrupted by World War I, where he served as a consulting physician to the forces in Italy and he retired in 1925, at the age of sixty.

Murry died on September 21, 1939


Asherson, Geoffrey L.; The New Dictionary of National Biography, found online at

Brockbank, William;The Honorary Medical Staff of The Manchester Royal Infirmary 1830-1948; Manchester University Press; 1965

Pearce, J M S;Myxoedema and Sir William Withey Gull (1816-1890); Journal of Neurosurgery and Psychiatry (2006) 77:639

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Jules Bordet

Jules Jean Baptiste Vincent Bordet was born on June 13, 1870 in Soignies, Belgium, a small town 23 miles south west of Brussels. In 1874 his father, Charles Bordet, a schoolteacher, was appointed to the Ecole Moyenne, a primary school. Both, Jules and his older brother Charles Jr. attended the Ecole Moyenne and then received their secondary education at the Athenne Royal of Brussels.

While attending the Athenne Royal Bordet became interested in chemistry and constructed a laboratory at home. He entered the medical program at the free University of Brussels at the age of sixteen, graduating, with his doctorate in 1892. He began doing research while still in medical school, publishing a paper in the Annels de l'Institute Pasteur in 1892.

In 1794 Bordet went to Paris to work at the Pasteur Institute sponsored by a scholarship from the Belgian government. In Paris he worked in the laboratory of the Ukrainian born scientist Ilya Metchnikoff. Bordet's experiments showed that there were two distinct elements present in immune sera needed to cause the lysis of bacterial cell walls. The first was a specific antibody, recognizing the particular kind of bacteria present, generated by the immune system in response to the bacteria. Antibodies are protein molecules that specifically bind to bacteria. The second is a nonspecific response, that is heat sensitive, that works in concert with the antibody response to lyse invading bacteria. Bordet called this second element "alexine", today it is called compliment. The insight that allowed Bordet to distinguish the two elements was that the compliment is sensitive to heat and can be destroyed by heating above 57 degrees Celsius, the antibody response is not destroyed by heating above 57 degrees.

Compliment is a biochemical cascade that works in concert with the antibody response to kill invading bacteria. The bacteria is first tagged when antibody molecules generated by lymphocytes bind to its surface. The compliment, a series of circulating proteins generated by the liver, recognize the antibody bound to the surface of the bacteria and through a series of reactions produce a pore in the cell wall of the bacteria. Fluid rushes in through the hole, driven by osmotic pressure, flooding the inside of the bacterial cell wall, eventually causing the bacterial cell to lyse.

In 1904 Bordet returned to Brussels to found the Pasteur Institute Brussels. In 1906, working with Octave Gengou, Bordet succeeded in isolating a pure culture of Bordatella pertussis, the organism that causes whooping cough, and was able to develop a vaccine against the disease. In 1919 Bordet was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for "for his discoveries relating to immunity".

Bordet died on April 6, 1960.


Laurell, A.B.; "Jules Bordet - A Giant in Immunology"; Scandinavian Journal of Immunology (1990)429-432

Jules Bordet Nobel Biography

Jules Bordet Wikipedia Entry

Sunday, June 6, 2010


Born as Johannes Muller, Regiomontanus was born on June 6, 1436 in Konigsberg, Bavaria (not to be confused with the Konigsberg in what was East Prussia and is now Kalingrad). As was the custom at the time Johannes Muller used a latinicized pseudonym for his writings. The Latin name for Konigsberg is Regio Monte and from this Muller derived Regiomontanus. The son of a miller, Regiomontanus was educated at home until the age of 11. In 1447 he entered the University of Leipzig to study dialectics. Attracted by its reputation for mathematics, in 1450 he entered the University of Vienna where he studied mathematics under Georg von Puerbach. He completed his baccalaureate in 1452. He was unable to earn his Master's Degree until 1457, as university regulations required recipients to be 21.

In 1547 he was appointed to the faculty of the University of Vienna, where he taught classes on perspective, Euclid and Virgil's Bucolics. He also collaborated with his former teacher Puerbach, doing astronomical observations. His primary interest was reading old manuscripts, of which he made copies. He also collaborated with Peurbach on an a abridgment of Ptolemy's Almagest. On his deathbed Peurbach urged his student to finish the work, which he did and although it was finished in 1462, it was not published until 1496. This work used the trigonometric functions sine and cosine and included a table of natural sines.

After the death of his teacher Regiomontanus traveled to Rome with his new patron Cardinal Bessarion. Regiomontanus spent the years from 1461 to 1465 as a member of the Cardinal's household. During this time he continued his studies, learning Greek from the Cardinal and using the Cardinal's library of Greek classics. Realizing the need for a systemic book on trigonometry, Regiomontanus completed De triangulis omnimodis (On Triangles of All Kinds) in 1464. This is the earliest systemic exposition on trigonometry, both planar and spherical, although portions of the sections on spherical trigonometry were taken, without attribution, from the twelfth century work of Jabir ibn Afla.

In 1471 Regiomontanus settled in Nuremberg, where he established an observatory and printing press. In Nuremberg he wrote three books on astronomy and he also created a mechanical eagle for Emperor Maximilian, which flapped its wings and was considered one of the marvels of the age. In 1475 Regiomontanus returned to Rome. He had been invited by Pope Sixtus IV, who wanted Regiomontanus' advice in reforming the calendar. The trip to Rome would prove fatal. Some commentators claim that Regiomontanus was poisoned. Others say that he died in the outbreak of plague that followed the flood of the Tiber in January 1476.

Regiomontanus died on July 6, 1476.


Ball, Walter William Rouse; A Short Account of the History of Mathematics; Macmillan and Company Ltd.; 1908

O'Conner, J.J. and Robertson, E.F.;"Johan Muller Regiomontanus" at

Regiomontanus wikipedia entry