restricted access Making Medicine Scientific: John Burdon Sanderson and the Culture of Victorian Science (review)
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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 78.1 (2004) 234-235



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Terrie M. Romano. Making Medicine Scientific: John Burdon Sanderson and the Culture of Victorian Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. xi + 225 pp. Ill. $39.95 (0-8018-6897-1).

John Burdon Sanderson is usually remembered as one of the first generation of British experimental physiologists. He was professor of practical physiology and histology at University College, London, from 1870; the first Jodrell Professor of Physiology at the same institution from 1874; and the first Waynflete Professor of Physiology at the University of Oxford from 1882. He did much to introduce continental methods of laboratory teaching and research into Britain, not least as editor and one of the main contributors to the Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory, published in 1873. Three years later, prompted in part by his concern to promote the interests of physiologists against the agitation of antivivisectionists, he became a moving force in the establishment of the Physiological Society. These facts are routinely rehearsed in accounts of the establishment of physiology as a pure preclinical medical science in Britain, as is Burdon Sanderson's failure to establish a research school to rival that of his Cambridge counterpart, Michael Foster. But as Terrie Romano makes clear, this is to take a very partial view of Burdon Sanderson's work. Rather, his physiological work is better viewed as just one aspect of a life devoted to advancing the scientific basis of medical practice, which went well beyond any narrow disciplinary ambitions for physiology.

Burdon Sanderson began his career as a private practitioner and hospital physician in London, and in 1855 was appointed Medical Officer of Health for Paddington. During the 1860s he conducted a number of investigations into the environmental and transmissable causes of epidemic disease for the British government. In 1872—two years after his appointment to his first physiology chair—he became in addition the first professor superintendent of the Brown Institute at the University of London, where he was able to continue his research into the causes of various epizootics and into the mechanisms of inflammation. In this capacity he did much to advance the acceptance of germ theory in Britain. He continued to write and lecture on such topics throughout his tenure of the Waynflete Chair, which he vacated in 1895 on his appointment to Oxford University's Regius Chair of Medicine. In this capacity he continued not only to [End Page 234] support the work of his old department of physiology, but also to build up teaching and research in other subjects—most notably pathology, bacteriology, and pharmacology—that he considered necessary to establish a proper school of preclinical medical science in Oxford.

Burdon Sanderson was less concerned than Foster to establish physiology as a discipline in its own right, and more inclined to cultivate it as part of a wider program of scientific medicine, in which pathology, not physiology, would provide the foundations for practice. Romano is to be applauded for correcting our one-sided picture of Burdon Sanderson's scientific and medical aims and accomplishments.

On the down side, her coverage of Burdon Sanderson's career is somewhat episodic, making it difficult to acquire a clear sense of just how his diverse scientific and professional activities related to one another, both chronologically and intellectually. Important elements of his scientific research are also skipped over: we learn much about the motivation for and reception of his studies of electrical activity in the leaves of the Venus flytrap, for instance, but are told next to nothing about his later electrophysiological investigations of skeletal muscle and the sense organs of the skate. Finally, in view of her book's title, Romano could have done rather more to explore Burdon Sanderson's place in the culture of Victorian science, especially medical science. Her discussion of the disjuncture between Burdon Sanderson's experimentalism and T. H. Huxley's and Foster's more evolutionary view of physiology is illuminating, as is her account of his rather clumsy efforts to...


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