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Richard Lower Richard Lower

Born: 1631 (Tremeer, near Bodmin, Cornwall, England)
Died: January 17, 1691(London, England)
Nationality: British
Occupation: physician, physiologist

Lower came from an old, affluent family with an interesting history. His grandmother, Mary Nicholls, was related to Anthony Nicholls, a member of the Long Parliament. His mother, Margery Billing, was of Hengar, the largest house in the district; and when Lower married Elizabeth, daughter of John Billing of Hengar, in 1666, the house came into the Lower family. Lower's father, Humphry, inherited Tremeer, the Lower family estate, and bequeathed it to Edward, Richard's older brother. Richard's younger brother, Thomas, a physician, was later imprisoned with the Quaker leader George Fox for his religious beliefs. Lower was also related to the dramatist Sir William Lower.

Lower was admitted from Westminster School to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1649. He took his B.A. in February 1653 and his M.A. in June 1655. In April 1663 he wrote to [Robert] Boyle that he had been put out of his place "above a year and a half since for not being in orders," and in June 1665 he took both the B.M. and doctor of physic degrees by accumulation. By this time Lower had spent several years at Oxford in close association with its famous circle of science devotees. He worked particularly closely with Thomas Willis, appointed Sedleian professor of natural philosophy in June 1660, whom he served for many years as research assistant.

In 1666 Lower moved from Oxford to London, where Willis had recently moved, principally to establish a medical practice. He settled at first in Hatton Garden, but during the next decade moved several times, in each case to a more fashionable location. He was admitted candidate of the Royal College of Physicians on 22 December 1671 and fellow on 29 July 1675. After Willis' death in 1675, Lower's successful medical career flourished even more. According to Anthony Wood he was "esteemed the most noted physician in Westminster and London, and no man's name was more cried up at court than his." Lower, having strong Protestant and anti-Popish sentiments, was closely identified with the Whig party, and his later career followed its fortunes. In the 1680's, with the discreditation under Charles II of the Whigs and the ascendance and accession of James II, Lower fell into some disrepute; he lost his court appointment and steadily lost much of his practice. Nevertheless, he carried on for several years, probably spending much of his time in Cornwall, until his death in 1691. In his will he left money to St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London and to the French and Irish Protestant refugees.

Lower was invited to join the Royal Society early in his residence in London, and for a few years he was closely associated with the society and its various scientific activities. After receiving mention several times in the minutes for 1666, Lower himself was "introduced" to the society by Robert Boyle on 2 May 1667. He was formally admitted on 17 October 1667, and in November, after having been considered as early as June, he was invited to take up the post of curator. Lower refused this offer, but on 21 November he was appointed to a committee to audit the society's accounts.

The sorry state into which the society was falling despite Lower's efforts is reflected in an entry in the minutes for 29 June 1668, in which Lower was "desired ... to make a list of particulars necessary for the making of anatomical experiments." Lower himself dropped from regular participation in the society's affairs by March 1669, probably to attend more fully to his medical practice; in 1678 he formally resigned his fellowship.

During his few, intensely active years with the Royal Society, Lower did much of the work that established his reputation as perhaps the best seventeenth-century English physiologist after Harvey. He was concerned principally with two areas of investigation: transfusion and cardiopulmonary function. His interest in both problems can be traced to his days at Oxford, but the fame of his investigations and many of his most fruitful results owed a great deal to his association with the Royal Society.

Apparently transfusion was attempted at Oxford in the late 1650's. There, according to later accounts, Christopher Wren tried to convey certain medicinal liquors directly into the bloodstream using quills and special bladders. Familiar with these earlier attempts, Lower in 1661 expressed interest in using similar procedures to transmit broth and other nutritive fluids directly into the bloodstream. In a letter to Boyle dated 18 January 1661, Lower expressed, his "fancy to try, how long a dog may live without meat, by syringing into a vein a due quantity of good broth" and described his intended procedure as follows: "I shall try it in a dog, and I shall get a tin pipe made, about two inches long, and about the usual bigness of a jugular vein, and hollow, which I may put into the vein. ..."1

By 8 June 1664, Lower was able to write to Boyle in London about a more daring experiment: he intended to "get two dogs of equal bigness [and] let both bleed into the others vein. ..."2 As Lower was to explain retrospectively in his TRACTATUS DE CORDE (1669), he was led from the broth experiment to the transfusion attempt by observing how harmoniously the blood of different animals mixed with various injected substances. It was natural to "try if the blood of different animals would not be much more suitable and would mix together without danger or conflict."3 It is quite possible that Lower was influenced as well by reports of discussions at the Royal Society late in 1663. At one of these, Timothy Clarke had described his method of infusing certain medicinal preparations directly into the veins of dogs, and an unnamed fellow of the society proposed "to let the blood of a lusty dog into the veins of an old one, by the contrivance of two silver pipes fastened to the veins of such two dogs."4

With his ideas crystallized, it took Lower only a few months to perfect the requisite experimental technique. He performed the first successful transfusion at Oxford late in February 1665, transfusing blood "from an artery of one animal into a vein of a second." The Royal Society soon heard of these results, and in early 1666, after several months interruption due to plague and the London fire, society members were busy making their own investigations into transfusion. In June 1666 John Wallis, who had been present at Lower's successful experiment at Oxford the previous February, reviewed Lower's success; and the society, through Boyle, requested a full account from Lower. This was officially received in September, replicated at the society in November, and printed in PHILOSOPHICAL TRANSACTIONS (December 1666). By mid-1667 Lower had joined the society.

Meanwhile, in Paris, Denis -- without proper citation -- had appropriated Lower's techniques and applied them to human transfusion. The Royal Society was outraged and Lower, sensitive to his colleagues' concerns, tried and succeeded at human transfusion. On 12 December 1667 the procedure was firmly established in England with its second successful trial, this a public one before a large crowd.

Lower's second major area of physiological investigation was cardiopulmonary function. Again, his interest can be traced to his Oxford days. Already in 1658 Lower and Willis were looking into the fundamental problem from which, when solved, all of Lower's principal results were to derive: the reason for the perceived difference in color between venous and arterial blood.

Willis formulated his own answer to this problem in his "Diatribae Duae" (Oxford, 1659), a two-part essay on fermentation and fevers. Willis assumed that the blood, composed of five chemical principles, is normally in a state of gentle fermentation. But when the blood reaches the chambers of the heart the already fermenting fluid effervesces further. As the blood passes through the heart, "its mixture is very much loosned, so that the Spirits, together with the Sulphureous Particles, being somewhat loosned, and as it were inkindled into a flame, leap forth, and are much expanded, and from thence they impart by their deflagration, a heat to the whole."5

Lower himself at first accepted this theory of a sudden, energetic enkindling of the blood in the closed chambers of the heart as an explanation for the lighter, more vivid appearance of arterial blood. He made it the basis of an essay written in defense of Willis, the DIATRIBAE THOMAE WILLISII ... DE FEBRIBUS VINDICATIO ADVERSUS EDMUNDUM DE MEARA (1665). A few years after writing the VINDICATIO, however, Lower's own ideas were to change substantially. The changes derived from certain subtle unorthodoxies he permitted himself in 1665 and, even more, from his positive, fruitful association with the Royal Society, which allowed his doubts to develop into open disagreement with Willis' ideas.

Lower's early departures were evident in a few scattered passages of the VINDICATIO. Thus, while elaborately defending Willis' theory of an accension of the blood in the heart, Lower nevertheless introduces an idea nowhere evident in the "Diatribae Duae": that the lungs (which were given no clear role by Willis) serve not only to discharge the soot resulting from the "fire" in the heart, but likewise serve to impregnate the blood passing through them with the "nitrous pabulum" of the air.6 Willis, like Lower after him, had alluded to a "nitrosulphureous ferment implanted in the heart," but only Lower explicitly referred to a pabulum in the lungs that "impregnated" the blood.

Photo: Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

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Source: An excerpt from DICTIONARY OF SCIENTIFIC BIOGRAPHY, Vol. VIII: 523-527. © 1980 American Council of Learned Societies.


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