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J R Soc Med. 2005 April; 98(4): 185–186.
PMCID: PMC1079454

Servants of Medicine: Augustus Waller—father and son physiologists

Reviewed by John Henderson

A H Sykes
214 pp Price £18 ISBN 1-850-2-317-6 (p/b)
York: William Sessions.

Scientific families have a peculiar charm, for in them nature and nurture are intriguingly entangled. Such is the case with Augustus Volnay Waller (1816–1870) and his son, Augustus Désiré Waller (1856–1922)—medical scientists of great distinction. Alan Sykes' biography enables their similar-but-different lives to bounce off each other, to the benefit of them both.

A V Waller (we will call him Waller I) was the son of a free-thinking Kentish farmer with French connections. He qualified in medicine in Paris, and his md thesis involved examination of the microcirculation in the frog's tongue. He noticed that white blood cells (but not red ones) could squeeze between capillary cells. He thus discovered diapedesis, although his guru, William Sharpey, was sure that someone had seen it earlier. Waller I set up in medical practice in Kensington (in 1842) and, as a hobby, experimented with the nerves supplying his favourite organ, the frog's tongue. Section of these nerves produced 'necklaces of droplets' (degenerating myelin) in the nerves on one side of the cut. He realized that this was an indication of the direction in which the nerve normally conducted. So Wallerian degeneration was born, and few techniques have contributed more to our understanding of the nervous system (Marchi improved it in 1885 by showing that, by the use of osmium, degenerating myelin could be stained a fierce black).

The Royal Society made Waller a Fellow (he was 35) and later awarded him its Gold Medal for the discovery. But he never held down a 'proper' job; he did have a chair in physiology in Birmingham, for less than a year, but retired to St Leonards-on-Sea to study sea urchins. The rest of his life involved medical practice and research in Paris, Bruges, and Geneva (where Waller II was educated); one of his interests was the effect of pressure on the 'vagus' in the neck (the carotid sinus did not yet exist). He wrote how he was 'a complete martyr to see-sickness' [sic]; on a journey to London on the Ostend ferry he 'found nausea already commencing. Pressure on the vagus produced sleep on two occasions, and I was able to escape the enemy'. Waller I must have been one of the most distinguished amateur physiologists ever, as Sykes notes. A century later he would have been a wonderful employee for the Medical Research Council.

Augustus Désiré (Waller II) was born in Paris and educated in Geneva, and was 14 when Waller I died. He went to Aberdeen to qualify in medicine (probably on Sharpey's advice) and decided that physiology was to be his life. He became a lecturer at the London School of Medicine for Women, where one of his students was Alice Palmer, biscuit heiress of Huntley and Palmer. They married, bought a large house in Grove End Road, St John's Wood, and Alice's dowry (£70 000) supported Waller II and a large family for the rest of their days. The five children grew up in a house bursting with physiology: once, when they were going on holiday, daughter Mary remembered her mother asking the children what things they wanted to take, adding 'but don't forget, Father has bagged the galvanometer'. The Waller house in St John's Wood was the only private house at which the Physiological Society held a meeting.

Waller II became lecturer in charge of physiology at St Mary's Hospital, and there made his one important contribution to medicine: he recorded the first human electrocardiogram. He lectured on it ad nauseam in Europe and America—usually showing the same tracing—and was clearly a showman. He bred bulldogs at Grove End Road, and his favourite, Jimmie, starred in many of his ECG demonstrations, philosophically standing in pots of saline for hours on end. When Willem Einthoven was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on the ECG, he said he owed his interest in the subject to hearing Waller lecture on it. Waller II, like his father, was elected to the Royal Society aged 35; but his great failure was not to see the clinical possibilities of the ECG, which Einthoven did.

The achievements of Waller I are certainly greater than those of his son, yet there is no doubt that the latter was a memorable scientific communicator. Sykes' readable account of their lives does not really explain why neither became a professor in a university department (in spite of their early frss). And why did none of Waller II's talented, physiologically-inclined children succeed in the family obsession? Perhaps such questions can only be answered with the fine-grained detail provided by family letters, and these are rarely available. But the Wallers make delightful companions, just the same.

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press