Editor Donald F. Proctor explains in his preface that this book is a “chronological presentation of the history of breathing physiology” (p. vii). An otolaryngologist and physiologist who has been on the Johns Hopkins faculty for more than half a century, he informs readers that the book “covers in great depth those aspects of the field in which I have a deep and personal interest, rather than completely covering all aspects of the history of physiology of breathing” (p. vii).
Proctor wrote half of the eighteen chapters and asked nine “friends who are authorities in one field or another to write briefly about their own major interests and endeavors” (p. viii). The result is an uneven effort that falls short of the editor’s goal. Proctor’s are the best chapters; he is familiar with both the primary and secondary sources relevant to his topic, and he tries to place the people and events in context. His chapters deal with the “mystery of breathing” from antiquity to the Renaissance, William Harvey and the discovery of the circulation, physics and physiology during the Enlightenment, and John Mayow (a seventeenth-century British physician and scientist whose observations and theories have long been the subject of controversy).
Francis Chinard discusses eighteenth-century contributions to the physiology of respiration and provides a useful summary of the work of Joseph Priestley and Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier. Solbert Permutt provides a brief overview of the pulmonary circulation from William Harvey to André Cournand (who shared the Nobel Prize for the development of cardiac catheterization). The nineteenth [End Page 184] century receives scant attention, despite its importance in the development of experimental physiology.
Some chapters are very technical and do not fit comfortably into this historical volume. Two in this category are Mary Ellen Avery’s essay on lung stability and surface-active agents, and David Swift’s discussion of fluid-flow studies related to the physiology of breathing. Swift’s chapter is replete with complex (albeit classical) mathematical formulas that will be unintelligible to most historians and clinicians. Robert Fitzgerald’s chapter on the regulation of breathing includes a brief historical perspective on contributions prior to the twentieth century, but it is devoted primarily to scientific observations since World War II. Like some other chapters, it is more a review of the (relatively) recent literature than a historical essay.
Despite these concerns, this book provides a useful, if somewhat uneven, overview of the history of respiratory physiology. There are several dozen illustrations, and each chapter includes references to the primary literature. There are separate name and subject indexes; unfortunately, some page numbers are incorrect. Part of a series of almost a hundred volumes on lung biology in health and disease, this expensive book will be of interest primarily to scientists and clinicians concerned with respiratory physiology.