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H MS c28

Porter, William Townsend, 1862-1949. Papers, 1851-1955, undated : Finding Aid.

Center for the History of Medicine (Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine)


Center for the History of Medicine (Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine)

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

Descriptive Summary

Call No.: H MS c28
Repository: Center for the History of Medicine (Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine)
Creator: Porter, William Townsend, 1862-1949
Title: William Townsend Porter Papers, 1851-1955
Date(s): 1851-1955,
Quantity: 3.3 cubic feet (2 record cartons, 1 document box, 1 half document box, 1 flat document box, and 1 photograph box)
Language of materials: English
Abstract: The William Townsend Porter Papers, 1851-1955, undated, provide a record of Porter's administrative, teaching, and research activities at Harvard Medical School, the establishment and operation of the Harvard Apparatus Company, and his personal life.

Immediate Source of Acquisition:

The William T. Porter Papers were donated to the Harvard Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine by his family in 1958.

Processing Information:

Processed by Amara Edwards, April 2002
Processing note: When surveyed in 2002 the collection was divided into three parts. The three groups were interfiled, and original order was retained when possible. The collection was organized into six series. Duplicates and unrelated items were discarded.

Conditions Governing Access:

Access requires advance notice. Consult the Public Services Librarian for further information.

Conditions Governing Use:

The Harvard Medical Library does not hold copyright on all the materials in the collections. Requests for permission to publish material from the collection should be directed to the Public Services Librarian. Researchers who obtain permission to publish from the Public Services Librarian are responsible for identifying and contacting the persons or organizations that hold copyright. Reference Services and Access Information.

Preferred Citation:

William Townsend Porter papers, 1851-1955. H MS c28. Harvard Medical Library, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Boston, Mass.


William Townsend Porter (WTP), Professor of Comparative Physiology at Harvard Medical School (HMS), where he conducted research on the heart, and on the growth and development of schoolchildren. WTP was born in Plymouth, Ohio to Dr. Frank (FP) and Martha Porter (MP) in 1862, both of whom died when he was 17. He worked his way through St. Louis Medical College, receiving the MD in 1885, and spent the following year studying at the Universities of Kiel, Breslau and Berlin in the laboratories of Walther Flemming, Karl Hurthle and Rudolf Heidenhain. After returning to St. Louis, he served as acting superintendent of the St. Louis City Hospital for one year and as Assistant Professor and Professor of Physiology at the St. Louis Medical College from 1887 to 1893. At St. Louis Medical College, building upon his experience in Germany, Porter established the first laboratory of physiology in the Midwest and conducted extensive physiological research on the structure of Ranvier's nodes and the relationship between childhood growth and mental development. His publications on ventricular filling and pressure, control of respiration, coronary circulation, origin of the heart beat, and physical and mental development of children, drew the attention of Henry Pickering Bowditch at HMS.
Before moving to Boston, WTP married Alma Canfield Sterling (ASP) of St. Louis; they had one child, Hildegarde (HP). In 1893, Bowditch persuaded WTP to join the Department of Physiology at HMS. He was Assistant Professor of Physiology at HMS from 1893 to 1898, Associate Professor from 1898 to 1906, and then Professor of Comparative Physiology until retirement in 1928, when he became Emeritus. During his tenure at HMS, WTP spent the years 1916-1918 in France, studying the effects of shock on the wounded at the request of the Rockefeller Institute.
While at HMS, WTP reorganized the teaching of physiology and introduced student laboratory experiments as a regular part of the curriculum. He recognized his new laboratory courses in physiology required the use of physiological instruments, such as the kymograph, most of which were expensive and imported from Europe. To meet the needs of students WTP began simplifying existing laboratory equipment, inventing new apparati, and reducing costs by producing in producing in quantity. In 1901, after other medical schools inquired about his laboratory equipment, WTP established the Harvard Apparatus Company as a nonprofit educational institution. WTP used the profits were used to establish a pension fund for the company's employees, make improvements in production equipment, and to establish the W.T. Porter Research Fellowship in 1921. The company continued to provide low cost equipment for research and teaching in physiology and pharmacology in the United States and abroad into the twentieth century.
From 1898 until 1914, WTP managed editorship and full financial responsibility for the American Journal of Physiology. During these years, WTP published many articles in professional journals on the physiology of the heart. He also published various editions of several texts, including Introduction to Physiology, first published in 1901, Experiments for Students in the Harvard Medical School, first published in 1901, and Physiology at Harvard, first published in 1903. In 1914 he turned the American Journal of Physiology over to the American Physiological Society. WTP died in 1949.

Series and Subseries Arrangement


Photographs and daguerreotypes are listed in the order in which they appear, and are housed separately in box 4. Glass negatives are housed in box 6. Boxes 4 and 6 are housed with Center for the History of Medicine daguerreotypes in row 1, unit 5, shelf 6 in the Center for the History of Medicine's stacks. WTP's academic hood is housed in box 5.

Scope and Content

The William Townsend Porter Papers, 1851-1955, undated, are the product of WTP's administrative, teaching, research, and professional activities at HMS, and his personal life. The papers also include personal records and WTP's early physiological research at St. Louis Medical College, and at the Universities of Kiel, Breslau, and Berlin. Topics include the structure of Ranvier's nodes and the relationship between childhood growth and mental development. Harvard Medical School records include teaching and administrative records, research notes, and clinical studies. Topics include heart nerves, the seasonal growth of Boston school children, and the innervation of respiration. Financial records, business correspondence, and publications are the product of the creation and operation of the Harvard Apparatus Company, and professional correspondence with United States and international physicians from his editorial and management activities at the American Physiological Society are also included. The papers include some family correspondence, personal writings, travel and journal entries, photographs and daguerreotypes.

Container List

Additional Index Terms

Child Development
Harvard Medical School--Study and teaching.
Medical education.
Military Medicine
World War, 1914-1918--Medical care.
Porter, William Townsend, 1862-1949
Harvard Apparatus Company.
Harvard Medical School. Dept. of Physiology.