Walter Holbrook Gaskell

Walter Holbrook Gaskell (1847-1914)

Walter Holbrook Gaskell (1847-1914) was a British physiologist.

Gaskell became central to our current understanding of cardiac physiology though he never practiced medicine following the completion of his medical studies. He defined the properties of the cardiac muscle, which he termed ‘rhythmicity, excitability, contractility, conductivity and tonicity’

Described as a large, kind man, well-liked and appreciated by his younger colleagues for his encouragement and advice who lectured with infectious enthusiasm

As a young man he engaged in rowing, cricket, swimming and tennis, and later enjoying yachting, fishing, whist and bridge, alongside his main hobby of gardening

  • Born 1st November 1847, Naples, Italy – his family were here for the winter allowing his father to convalesce
  • 1865 – Mathematics degree at Trinity College, Cambridge, following his early education at Highgate School, London
  • 1869 – Graduated with academic honours, there inspired by Michael Foster, an inspiring physiologist who helped develop the Cambridge School of Physiology
  • 1870 – Undergraduate medical studies at UCH, London
  • 1874 – Completed his medical studies, before working in Carl Ludwig’s physiology laboratory in Leipzig
  • 1878 – Obtained medical degree, though he never went on to practice medicine
  • 1881 – Croonian Lecturer of the Royal Society
  • 1882 – Fellowship of the Royal Society
  • 1883 – University lecturer in physiology, which he continued until his death
  • 1885 – Published his definitive work on the anatomy and function of the efferent sympathetic fibres
  • 1888 – Marshall Hall prize of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society for his work on the autonomic nervous system
  • 1889 – Royal Society medalist
  • 1895 – Baly medalist of the Royal College of Physicians
  • Died 7th September 1914, three days after a cerebral haemorrhage

Key Medical Attributions

Gaskell is recognised for many cardiac contributions, most notably:

  • properties of the cardiac muscle, which he termed ‘rhythmicity, excitability, contractility, conductivity and tonicity’
  • the experimental proof demonstrating myogenic, rather than neurogenic, origin of the heartbeat
  • mapping the anatomy of the sympathetic nervous system
  • understanding dual autonomic control of the heart
  • discovering the vasodilatory effect of sympathetic stimulation on blood flow through skeletal muscle arteries
  • introducing the concept of heart block through experimentation with excised frog and tortoise hearts; increasing AV conduction delay by excising tissue at the site now recognised as the AV node being one example of his experimentation

Medical Eponyms

None of his own, though his early worked laid platform for more familiar names:- Luciani, Galabin, Mackenzie, Wenckebach, Hay, Mobitz and Second-degree AV block


Spent 25 years trying to prove that vertebrates evolved from invertebrates, publishing a poorly received book in 1908 entitled ‘The Origin of Vertebrates

Notable Quotables

The law of progress is this: – The race is not to the swift, nor to the strong, but to the wise – the secret of evolutionary success is the development of a superior brain.

The experimental sciences of Physiology, Pathology and Pharmacology are more and more directly influencing the study and practice of medicine . . . slowly but surely the results of experiments gained in the laboratories are being applied to man.

Said posthumously of Gaskell:- 

It is safe to say that to no physiologist does medicine owe a debt greater than that which it owes to Walter Holbrook Gaskell, for, in the course of his work on the sympathetic nervous system, he laid for all time the foundations of the pathology of the heart.

Major Publications



Eponymous terms

Dr Ben Mackenzie emergency medicine trainee | LinkedIn |

BA MA (Oxon) MBChB (Edin) FACEM FFSEM. Emergency physician, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital.  Passion for rugby; medical history; medical education; and asynchronous learning #FOAMed evangelist. Co-founder and CTO of Life in the Fast lane | Eponyms | Books | Twitter |

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.