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H MS c22

Forbes, Alexander, 1882-1965. Papers, 1827, 1835, 1848-1978 (inclusive), 1910-1946 (bulk): 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 c22
Repository: Center for the History of Medicine (Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine)
Creator: Forbes, Alexander, 1882-1965
Title: Alexander Forbes Papers, 1827, 1835, 1848-1978 (inclusive), 1910-1946 (bulk)
Date(s): 1827, 1835, 1848-1978 (inclusive),
Date(s): 1910-1946 (bulk)
Quantity: 1 collection (136 manuscript boxes.)
Language of materials: English
Abstract: The Alexander Forbes Papers, 1827, 1835, 1848-1978 (inclusive), 1910-1946 (bulk), are the product of Forbes' teaching and research activities in the Department of Physiology at Harvard Medical School. The bulk of the collection falls between 1910 and 1946, and consists of Forbes' correspondence, manuscripts, drafts, and notes resulting from his reseach on neurophysiology and electrophysiology. The collection also includes correspondence, reports, notes, documents, journals, logs, maps, photographs, data, and printed items resulting from Forbes's aerial mapping expeditions and navigational projects, both on his own and during his wartime service.

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 collection. 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:

Alexander Forbes papers, 1827, 1835, 1848-1978 (inclusive), 1910-1946 (bulk). H MS c22. Harvard Medical Library, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Boston, Mass.

Related Material in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Center for the History of Medicine

Consult the Public Services Librarian for further information.


Alexander Forbes (1882-1965) was a pioneer in neurophysiology research in the United States. A member of the department of physiology at Harvard Medical School for over thirty-five years, his professional papers from 1910 to 1946 are the core of the Alexander Forbes Archive in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. The majority of the material in the 136 manuscript boxes is divided into two subject fields: neurophysiology and navigation with a special emphasis on aerial mapping of coastlines. In addition there is a small quantity of material on the controversy over the introduction of ether anesthesia and on the Drinker-Emerson respirator patent dispute. Personal biographical material is limited.



Series and Subseries in the Collection

Description of Archive

The Alexander Forbes Archive spans the years from 1827 to 1978 and totals 136 manuscript boxes of correspondence, manuscripts, research notes, lecture notes, bibliographies, laboratory data, protocols, films, tracings, logs, maps, and biographical materials. While some of these professional papers were deposited by Dr. Forbes in the late 1940's, the majority were received from his laboratory and home after his death.
The collection is divided into eight major subject sequences, the first three alphabetical by name of correspondent. The scientific correspondence with almost 600 individuals fills 17 manuscript boxes and includes many of the prominent British and American neurophysiologists of the period. There are a number of large and historically significant exchanges. Dr. Forbes studied with Charles S. Sherrington in Liverpool in 1911-1912 and their subsequent letters (57) over a forty-two year period reflect not only Sherrington's views at the height of his influence, but how stubbornly his modesty refused to yield to the world's honors, even to the Nobel award in 1932. Letters exchanged with Edgar D. Adrian (111), with whom Forbes collaborated in 1921, cover the period 1914-1959, when the Cambridge University physiologist was doing the work that won him a Nobel prize. The correspondence with Horatio B. Williams (115), the Columbia physiologist trained as an engineer, is largely concerned with instrumentation; from 1913 to 1949 Dr. Forbes sought technical advice and reported his experimental results. Hallowell Davis was Dr. Forbes' student and colleague and their 64 letters from 1922 to 1963 trace a long and productive relationship.
More neurophysiology is contained in the exchnge with Grayson McCouch (78) from 1925 to 1958. Correspondence with John Eccles (18) in the 1930's shows a lively controversy on the nature of synaptic transmission. Other interesting exchanges in the 1920's and 1930's include those with Herbert Gasser (23), Ralph Gerard (48), and John Fulton (84). Less voluminous exchanges illuminate both the activities of and Dr. Forbes' relations with a number of other prominent physiologists: Clarence J. Campbell, Walter B. Cannon, Stanley Cobb, Archibald V. Hill, Genichi Kato, Raphael Lorente de No, Keith Lucas, James M. D. Olmsted, George H. Parker, Alfred C. Redfield, Birdsey Renshaw, Ragnar Granit, H. Keffer Hartline, Ernst T. von Brucke, and George Wald.
The correspondence with institutions and organizations (7 boxes, 1909-1964) includes materials on Dr. Forbes' U.S. Public Health Service grant. Because of his emeritus status, Dr. Forbes was funded directly without an istitutional sponsor. The correspondece with journal and book publisher is highlighted by the long struggle over the publication of Quest for a Northern Air Route. In addition to the above, a small sequence of laboratory equipment suppliers is arranged alphabetically with apparatus instructions grouped together at the end.
A chronolgical arrangement was used to control the large amount (27 boxes, 1913-1963) of laboratory research notes, both loose and in notebooks, and scientific protocols generated by Dr. Forbes and his coworkers. Positive prints and tracings were retained. A separate quantity of negative film was found to be nitrate based and had to be discarded. A few rolls of negative are safety film and can be found in an addenda to the archive.
Dr. Forbes published four monographs and 196 articles not only about neurophysiology but also about sailing, flying, mapping, religion and other topics. The scientific manuscript materials in the archive frequently include original data, reading notes, several annotated drafts, and galley proofs. The materials related to these publications fill 28 manuscript boxes and are arranged by date of publication from 1907 to 1964. These are followed by addresses made by Dr. Forbes. The small number of lectures given by Dr. Forbes is perhaps related to his deafness. Dr. Forbes wore a hearing aid to compensate for the progressive hearing loss that began even before he entered Harvard College.
An annotated bibliography devoted to studies of nerve muscle physiology by Dr. Forbes' contemporaries can be found in Boxes 56-57.
Charles Jackson, a claimant to the discovery of ether as an anesthetic, was the brother of Ralph Waldo Emerson's wife, Lydia, and thus great uncle to Dr. Forbes. A family interest in defending Jacson's name and claim resulted in a small but interesting group of letters and related materials in Box 91. A family link also explains the letters and other materials concerning the Drinker — Emerson respirator patent dispute (Box 92), which led to the Harvard Corporation ruling against faculty-owned patents. Dr. Forbes was a cousin of Haven Emerson, the father of John Haven Emerson, and was called on as a mediator in the dispute.
As the youngest son of the president of Bell Telephone, Dr. Forbes was able to finance research activities in physiology and in navigation, his avocation. The largest chronological sequence (24 boxes) traces this latter interest from Dr. Forbes' services as an installer of ardio direction finders during World War I through his serial mapping expeditions in Labrador during the 1930's to the application of this knowledge during the second World War. Dr. Forbes was in his mid-sixties when he was finally released from his obligations to the Hydrographic Office of the Navy and returned to Harvard Medical School. Shortly afterward he became professor emeritus and moved his research activities to the Harvard Biological Laboratories in Cambridge. There he trained new collaborators and studied the physiology of vision and learning, feeling he had lost touch with nerve physiology during the war.
The biographical section of the Alexander Forbes Archive contains little of a truly perosnal nature. School notebooks, materials connected with his Harvard Medical School faculty position, and a small file of personal correspondence do not mirror his happy marriage to Charlotte Irving Grinnell or his affection for his four children. A hint at what kind of a man Dr. Forbes was can be found in materials which touch on his relationship to his cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The affectionate tone of the scientific correspondece gives proof to the many sincere tributes and awards he earned.
A selected name index with some cross references is provided at the end of the inventory. The archive was organized and described by Judith H. Goetzl with funds provided by the Grass Foundation of Quincy, the Commonwealth Fund, and the Forbes family.

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