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Transcript: Arthur S. Gilson, Jr., 1980

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This is an oral history interview of Dr. Arthur S. Gilson, Jr., done on October 17, 1980.  Dr. Gilson was born in Portland, Maine, June 30, 1896, got his undergraduate degree at Dartmouth College in 1919 and his graduate degrees at Harvard, from which he got his Ph.D. in 1924.  However, between 1922 and 1924, he was also an instructor in physiology at the Tulane School of Medicine in New Orleans.  In 1925, he came to the Washington University School of Medicine in the Department of Physiology under Dr. [Joseph] Erlanger and he stayed there until his retirement in 1964.  He, like Dr. Erlanger and others in the department, was interested in the electrical response of skeletal and cardiac muscle and the excitability and impulse conduction of cardiac muscle.  He was also able to develop equations for plotting curves on twitch and muscle tetanus and fatigue of the muscle due to actions of chemicals and for other reasons.  Dr. Gilson worked in the laboratory at the same time that Dr. [George H.] Bishop and Dr. [Peter] Heinbecker were working on the subject of nerve impulse conduction and this is what we are going to ask him about today.

You mentioned just now, Dr. Gilson, that Dr. [Peter] Heinbecker was not in the Department of Physiology, yet in the [Joseph] Erlanger papers which we have in the archives of the library, there is a whole file of arguments with [George H.] Bishop and Erlanger as to whom Dr. Heinbecker is to report to, whether he should report to Dr. Bishop or report to Dr. Erlanger and indeed some people have felt that that was the reason that Bishop finally left the Department of Physiology.  Could you comment on that?

Well, it’s my recollection that Heinbecker came out here as a National Research Council Fellow in Surgery.

Yes, he was a surgeon.

He came over to the department as a guest, shall we say, but I don’t think he ever had an appointment in the Department of Physiology.

Then why do you think that Dr. Erlanger felt that any findings he had should be first reported to him, Erlanger, rather than to anybody else?

Oh, I think merely because Dr. Erlanger felt that he was in charge of the nerve research program that was going on and in that respect was responsible for whatever came out of that department.

There was a good deal of nerve research that was going on in other departments of the medical school at that time, was there not?  I found, again in the Erlanger papers, suggestions put together by Dr. [E. V.] Cowdry and Dr. Bishop for an Institute of Neurology, and they listed Heinbecker in surgery, [James L.] O’Leary in anatomy, some of the people in physiology, and Bishop himself, and suggested that it be set up as a separate institute.  Were you involved during these events?

That was a paper institute for convenience in pulling things together, that was all.  It had no formal structure otherwise.

Actually, Dr. Erlanger was not in favor of it at all.  He wrote a devastating memo about it in which he said, “I oppose this proposal to the last ditch.”  Why did Dr. Erlanger not want such an institute, do you know?

I think simply because he wanted to keep himself independent of what other people were doing.

He made a great deal of comment in that memo, which apparently was addressed to the Executive Faculty, to the fact that he had developed the cathode ray oscillograph and he felt that he should be the one to say who could use it and who not.

Well he had physically made it with Bishop’s help.  In 1923 or 1924, the Bell Telephone people reported at the meeting of the Physics Society on the 400-volt cathode ray tube.  Dr. Alexander Langsdorf who was in the engineering school heard that speech and told Dr. [Herbert] Gasser and Dr. Erlanger about it, and they made arrangements with the Bell Telephone people to obtain these tubes which were still in experimental state.  Then, Dr. Erlanger, Dr. Bishop and Dr. Gasser physically put together the equipment to make them useful and that was the beginning of the program.

Where did then Dr. [H. S.] Newcomer come in?

Newcomer was a friend of Gasser’s who had been with Dr. Gasser in the Department of Pharmacology about 1922 or 1923.  He was never in the Physiology Department, I think. [ed. note:  Dr. Newcomer’s name is not listed with the Pharmacology faculty in school bulletins between 1921 and 1925.]

I see.  Bishop himself says, “Gasser and Newcomer and Erlanger fixed up a gas jet for glassmaking.  They first tried to make a brown tube because they couldn’t buy one and having got it all made, they turned the current on and there was an explosion and blew it all asunder.  They forgot to put in a central controlling resistor.”

I think that probably is so.

Then after that, Bishop helped them to produce another tube?

When I came to town, they got the tubes from the Bell Telephone Laboratories.  Bishop made one tube which I saw which was around the department for a long time.

Yes.  I think we have it in our files.

But that also blew the filament the first time it was used so it was never very useful.

I would think not.  You  keep saying Bell Telephone, and I have Western Electric.  Are they the same thing?

Yes.  It was the Bell Telephone Laboratories of the Western Electric Company on lower Broadway in New York.

Oh, yes.  Were you interested in this same problem?  Is that why you came to St. Louis?

No, I didn’t know anything about it.

Then how did you get into it almost immediately?

I never did get into it.

Oh, you never did get into it, but you were working on nerve impulses too?


My goodness.  I have misread all of your articles.

I don’t remember that I ever had anything to do with nerves.  Oh, I stimulated the vagus nerve of a turtle but that was because the vagus went to the heart, not because it was the nerve.

You were interested then in cardiac innervation?

I was interested in the cardiac response to innervation, yes.

Excuse me for being so ignorant, but wasn’t the idea of nerve conductions an outgrowth of work on muscle contraction?

No, no.  There was no connection there.  That was separate entirely.

In some of your early works, you talk about the development, maintenance and relaxation of tension in isometric tetanus of skeletal muscle.


Was that what you were working on?

That was one of the things I played with, yes.  That had nothing to do with the innervation of the muscle.

I see.

No, you should keep anything that I tried to do separate from the Gasser and Erlanger program entirely.

I see.  I had the idea they all meshed in together.

No, no.

And yet you were a member of the axonologists from the very beginning.

Well, I was one of the people who was around at that time and that began as a small and very informal group, and I happened to go to dinner that night.

Well, you went to dinner several years.  We have found the records and we found it, that’s why I know.  What were the axonologists like?

Well, it was a group of people.  [There] were only a few at the first, Rosenblueth at Harvard, Hal Davis [Hallowell Davis].  There was Marshall at Baltimore and a few other people who got together quite informally to talk about these things in terms of what was then going on.

And how long did you stay with that group?  It lasted for about 15 years.

Oh, possibly.

Were you with it all the time right through until World War II?

More or less.  That gradually gave way to the more central nervous system activity and the axonologists sort of faded out of the picture.

I see.  Was that the way that somebody like John Fulton went to the central nervous system?


When you came, who was in the department besides Erlanger and Gasser?  Schmitt?  Was [Francis Otto] Schmitt there?

No, Schmitt was then an undergraduate.

I see.

Lester White was in the department.  He was working on kidney physiology, and at the time that was it.

But the department apparently cooperated with other groups, for instance, [Rafael] Lorente de No, who was then at the Central Institute for the Deaf.  Did you know him there, too?

Yes.  Lorente De No came to St. Louis not knowing the Central Institute for the Deaf which he’d made arrangements to work, and became a good friend of all of us.  But he did his work at the Central Institute.

He was also working on nerve potential?

Yes.  He worked into that while he was working.  He came here to work on neurohistology; he was working on a technique for staining and studying neurons in the cortex which was his particular field, and while he was doing that he gradually worked into the electrical recording.  Before he left here he was quite active in that field.

Where had he come from?  Do I remember that he had something to do with [Santiago] Ramón y Cajal in Spain?

He studied under Ramón y Cajal.  He went from there up to study under Magnus – I don’t remember where – and from Magnus’s laboratory came to this country.  Oh, somewhere along there he also was in Sweden.

When he left here, didn’t he go to Cornell?

I think he left here only when after Gasser had gone to the Rockefeller Institute.

Well, Gasser went from here to Cornell and then from Cornell to Rockefeller.

That’s right.  In New York City.

So he probably took—

He may have, I didn’t remember that.

Also working in this field was Helen [Tredway] Graham.  Was she working with the people in the Department of Physiology or was she in the Bishop/Heinbecker group?

Let’s keep it easy.  She was in the Department of Pharmacology.  She was working with Gasser on another problem entirely and gradually worked in and set up her own cathode ray outfit and worked independently after Gasser left the city.

She was recommended, I think, by Dr. Erlanger to be one of the axonologists, but was never elected to it, or never invited to join them.

I don’t know that.

Did they have any women in this axonologist [group]?

I don’t know.

Was Ethel Ronzoni Bishop [in the group]?

No, no.  She was a chemist, strictly.

When you came, then, you were one of a very few if you say there was only Erlanger, Gasser, one other, and you—


[H. Lester] White and you in the department at the time?

That’s right.

What made you come to Washington University?

I was looking for a job.

Oh.  But you had a job in Tulane.

Yes.  I had a job there, but Dr. Gary who was the head of the department went to Nashville, and I came up here.

I’m sure you had the chance to go anywhere you wanted at that time.  What made you choose Washington University?

Because I was offered a job.

It wasn’t the reputation of the people here?  You probably didn’t know about it.

I didn’t know anything except [that] St. Louis was a city in the Middle West.

You sound like me when I got out of university looking for a job; all I cared for was the job.  What was your research before you came here?

Oh, I had done my Ph.D. work on color changes in fishes and got away from that when I went to Tulane.

You were writing your dissertation while you were at Tulane, I gather, because you got your degree after—

That’s right.

And what were you doing at Tulane?

Teaching physiology.

Just basic physiology?

And pharmacology.

Did you feel when you came here that your lack of an M.D., [having] just a Ph.D., was any impediment or did it make any difference?

Oh, no.

Did you ever work with the cathode ray oscillograph?

Oh, yes.

I used to go occasionally and have tea with Dr. Erlanger before he died and he used to explain some of the problems, like the streetcars running which had required him to shut down his work while [they passed].

Well, in the early days, the direct heated cathode tubes and the amplifiers were extremely sensitive to microphonic disturbances.  Anything like shooting off a rifle in the hallway or a truck passing – in spite of the fact that the amplifiers were on a heavy concrete base and so forth – any such disturbance mechanically made trouble.  And at that time it was necessary to repeat the spread of the tube several times in order to get a photographic record.  So it was quite important that there were no disturbances along the way.

Bishop says, “Often we work all day and wind up at 5 o’clock at night with only one good record.”

That may well be.

He said the tube wasn’t bright enough to get a photograph.

There were a good many simple mechanical and electrical complications, switching noises, and so forth.

It must have been very hard to figure out what you got when you finally had a tracing of some kind.

It was.  It was.  The early records were pretty primitive, but they were a good deal better than the material that had been gotten before that with a capillary electrometer or a string galvanometer.

Hallowell Davis said in his interview, which we did a year or two ago, that he didn’t think this would work and he kept working with a string galvanometer until Erlanger showed that it really was a better system.  Did you spend all of your time here or did you have a year and go somewhere else the way most of them seemed to have done in those days?

No.  No, I was here.

And what was the school like in the twenties?

Very much more comfortable than it is now.

In what way?

It was smaller, much more personal, much more intimate.

Even in my time, it’s grown enormously.

It has.

It’s just out of bounds I think.  It’s like a cancer now.  Were the heads of the departments young, middle aged, elderly?  You were so young they probably all looked old to you.

Well, Dr. Erlanger was what, in his late forties perhaps?  He came out here from Johns Hopkins as a young man.

Wisconsin.  He went from Johns Hopkins to Wisconsin and from Wisconsin here.

That’s right.  Gasser was young.  Bishop had taken his Ph.D. right after the end of World War I and he had been out of the Ph.D. program for three years, perhaps, when he came here.

Do you know what brought him here?  He was trained as an engineer.

No.  Well, his undergraduate work was in engineering.  His Ph.D. work was in the cytology of the fat gland of the honeybee.  So his graduate work was as a cytologist.  He went to Memphis as an anatomist and came up here as an electrophysiologist.

I remember now in his autobiography he said that if he ever retired, he’d retire as an anatomist and work with honeybees again.  I’d forgotten about that.


What was the tenor of the meetings of the axonologists when they met?  Was it mostly social or did they have papers or what did they do?

Oh, it was primarily social interchange of information, yes.  I suppose someone read a paper sometimes, but at first there was nothing formal about it.  It became more formal as it got larger.

As it got larger, it also got more unwieldy I understand from some of the people who were there, and that was partially why it was disbanded.  Apparently every member could bring one more member as a guest and they began to bring two more and then three more.

That’s more or less true, yes.  It was for a while a popular branch of rather adventuring into new material entirely.

Were you surprised when Dr. Gasser and Dr. Erlanger got the Nobel Prize, or had you been in on the negotiations?

I had not been in on the negotiations, no.

Dr. Evarts Graham apparently was one of the people who made the suggestion and then collected the material to send to [the award committee].  I’m not really sure now what more to ask you since I thought that you were working in this group on nerve stimulation.  You were interested in the way in which muscle contracts, is that [right]?

More or less – mechanical responses of muscle and the conduction of impulse through the heart, things of that sort, but not in the sense of the electrophysiology as such.

Wasn’t that also some of the work that Dr. Erlanger did at Johns Hopkins?  Didn’t he work on the atrioventricular bundle?

He did.

And was yours in that same field?

Remotely, yes.

How did they differ?

Well, mainly in the point of attack and interest.  The cold-blooded heart has no differentiated A-V bundle, which the mammalian heart has.  I worked entirely with cold-blooded hearts and I was working on time relations rather than the actual anatomical structure, which is what Dr. Erlanger had done.

You did that as a continuation of your work on fish?

No, it had no relation to that whatever.

What caused you to change so violently from fish?

Because I’d had enough of it.

You had fish till they came out of your ears?

More or less.

What did you find about the change in color in fish?

That they did.  Not much more.

It didn’t take two years to find that out I’m sure.

Not much more.

Did you find out when they changed and why they changed?

People had known that before.

What were you trying to investigate?

Well, I was looking at the individual cell processes which guide the chromatic material and the embryology of the cells from which they arose.

Did you find any explanation for it?

Well, I found a description at least.

Well, that’s the first step.  I was impressed with the mathematics when you developed equations for plotting curves in twitch and muscle tetanus.  What was that all about?

Well, that was largely a contribution by Frank Urban in the chemistry department.

Here?  Frank Urban here?

Hm-mm.  He was at that time.  But it was a purely empirical piece of curve fitting to what we found experimentally, and we never got much beyond the empirical side of it.

Well, maybe somebody else will come along and find the theory behind it.

They have.

They have since then?  What have they found?

Well, that things leak out here and get in there and cause changes which result eventually in the contraction of the muscle.

Is this now a part of molecular biology rather than physiology?

I’ve never been sure.

Everything these days seems to be molecular biology so you could always say whatever you want about it.  I think that everybody is very interested in the personalities of the people who were involved, because personalities have so much to do with what actually happens.  Now that all of them are dead perhaps we could get some kind of picture.  What was Dr. Erlanger like?  What was Dr. Gasser like?  What was Dr. Bishop like and so on?

Well, Dr. Erlanger liked to run his own department, and Dr. Gasser, after he became established, liked to run his department.  When the reorganization of the Eye and Ear Departments occurred, Bishop went across the street as physiologist to the Ophthalmology Department.  And that’s about it.  We were spread over a good deal of territory.  Heinbecker was in surgery, Bishop was in ophthalmology, Gasser worked in pharmacology.

And [James] O’Leary was in anatomy then?

O’Leary came as an anatomist, yes, and took charge of the neuroanatomy.

How did they get Dr. [E. V.] Cowdry involved in it?  He was a histologist and an anatomist.

I didn’t know he was involved.

He presented the proposal for the Institute of Neurology.

Well, he liked to propose, but he was not personally involved in any of the work, I think.  O’Leary worked – I guess he did work under Dr. Cowdry.

In 1928, Dr. Erlanger was very unhappy with Dr. Bishop, so unhappy that he started a file of items on Bishop, memos back and forth and comments and diaries.  I was looking at that this morning, and in that he made a note to himself that Dr. Gasser refused to work with Dr. Bishop.  I’ve always heard about the problems between Erlanger and Bishop, but this is the first [time] I’ve ever come across [a reference to] Dr. Gasser.

Well, everyone was quite anxious to keep in track of what they were doing and keep charge of what they were doing; there was a certain amount of competitive spirit between one group and another and it was that.  After Gasser left town, he and Bishop became very good friends.

It was not a disagreement on scientific principles, I take it.

Well interpretation here and there, perhaps.

But Gasser and Erlanger also disagreed on interpretation but they remained perfectly able to work with each other and Bishop apparently couldn’t work with either one of them.  Was Bishop a difficult person?

Well in a way he was an independent person.  When we were in the army together, he was told by the commanding officer that he should have been court-martialed and Bishop replied that if this had been the real army he would have been court-martialed.  But he afterwards became very good friends again with the neuroanatomist from Chicago.

[Stephen W.] Ranson?

No, no.  Ranson’s predecessor.

Yes, he was one of the axonologists – one of the founders.


I forget his name also.  You knew Bishop then before he came here?  You were both in the army together?

We were both in the army together.

How did that happen?  Was this a particular part of the army, because you came from different geographical areas?

It was a group that was officially brought together to cure the army of infectious meningitis.

Was that also Evarts Graham’s [unit]?

No, no, he was not in [it].

He had empyema.

Yes.  That’s another matter.  This group was brought together in Washington around Walter Reed Hospital, about twenty of us.  As far as I know, only one member of the group ever had anything to do with spinal meningitis.

Even when you were brought together for that purpose?


You didn’t do anything with it?


What did you do instead?

We boiled urine, we counted blood, we did autopsies.  We did various things.

You were still in college at that time, weren’t you?  Was Bishop also [in college]?

Bishop was finishing his Ph.D. thesis.

So he was ahead of you.  What did he do that would have gotten him a court-martial?

I guess he talked back to his commanding officer.

Well, apparently he did that to Erlanger, too.  As near as I can make out from reading everything, he treated Erlanger very lightly and I don’t think Erlanger really liked that.

That’s possible.

I said before that I used to go around and visit Dr. Erlanger once a week for three or four years before he died.  He was a gentle old soul at that time, but from reading his files I didn’t think he was a very gentle soul when he was head of [Physiology].

He liked to run his own department.

He would not have been very happy with somebody who treated him lightly?

That is true.

That explains a good deal.  He seemed also to be a very formal man.  Was that true?

Well, he was of another generation from the present one.

Yes.  He seemed formal even in his generation, if I can tell from reading.  You know, we are collecting the papers of a great many of the people who were so important here in the medical school.  We have Evarts Graham’s and Erlanger’s and Hallowell Davis’s and Helen Graham’s and a great many others.  I hope, Dr. Gilson, if you have any still with you that you’ll give them to us or leave them.

If I have any, I will, yes.

Very good.  [We would like to have] any correspondence.

I never write letters.

I was saying as we came up that you write one or two-sentence letters.  I wondered if we were going to get any more than that this afternoon.  But any laboratory notebooks or things [that] would show—

Those have all been thrown out.

That’s what we’re always afraid of.  In the history of science, one likes to know how somebody grew in his idea about his work and I’m always very sad when I hear that they’ve been thrown out.  Would there be any left in the Department of Physiology, do you think?

So far as I know, the department was stripped of everything.

When Dr. White became head of the department or after?

Well, more or less at the end of White’s time, the department was physically reorganized, and at that time everything that was not in immediate use, I think, was just disposed of.

Well that’s too bad.  I was here at that time and never got around to doing anything about it.  It’s unfortunate because I think that there was a lot that we should have gotten.  Do you know that Louise [Hanson] Marshall is writing with [Horace Winchell] Magoun.  I’m not sure if you knew Magoun—

Oh, yes.

—at UCLA.  She’s writing a history of neurophysiology and one section is on the axonologists.  She has been using our materials and says we have the largest collection of any place in the United States on the axonologists.  There are bits and pieces all over in other places.

That may be.

It would be nice if she could also use your papers.

As I say, my papers had nothing to do with the axonology program proper.

Well, they would be of importance to show the milieu of the physiology department at the time.

Well, the outgrowth of that are the Reiland(?) in Brussels, [Louis M.] Monnier, in Paris, those people were more concerned with the continuing of the program they started here.

They all worked here at one time and then spread out.


Also, were there many of the people who worked here who became heads of departments in other medical schools?

Well, Frank [Francis Otto] Schmitt took a Ph.D. under Dr. Erlanger.  He went to MIT.  [Edgar A.] Blair went to Texas.

Is there anything more about the axonologists or about the development of the Department of Physiology in the school or anything about the school that you think people ten years from now would like to know that I haven’t thought to ask you?

No, I think it started, the department simply grew, and people who knew each other personally spread out and the growth [continued] that way rather than any more direct method of growth that I know of.  There was no more growth in neurophysiology in particular, excepting as O’Leary and his people worked until Dr. Hunt came in.

Why did Dr. [Lester] White’s [era] not go in for work in neurophysiology?

He simply wasn’t interested in it.

Was he interested in something else?

He was strictly a kidney physiologist.

[ed. note: Dr. Brodman offers the archivist Paul Anderson the opportunity to ask questions of Dr. Gilson.]

We’re very grateful to you for taking the time to talk to us.

Well, you’re quite welcome.  As I say, I think you came here under false illusions, but you’re welcome.

Thank you very much.  I was uninformed about your work which I thought was with the axonologists, but I’m not sorry we came because I think we got a very good view of what the medical school and the Department of Physiology was in the twenties and thirties.  We’ve really taken an hour of your time.

That’s all right.

We’re very grateful to you.  If you do come across anything in your files as you’re going through them, please do let us know and we’ll come and pick them up.

I will.

Good.  Thank you.


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