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
Spent 25 years trying to prove that vertebrates evolved from invertebrates, publishing a poorly received book in 1908 entitled ‘The Origin of Vertebrates’
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.
- Gaskell WH. The Croonian Lecture. On the rhythm of the heart of the frog, and on the nature of the action of the vagus nerve. Phil Trans Roy Soc 1882;173:993–1033
- Gaskell WH: On the tonicity of the heart and blood vessels. J Physiol 1882; 3: 48
- Gaskell WH: Preliminary observations on the innervation of the heart of the tortoise. J Physiol 1882; 3: 369,
- Gaskell WH. On the innervation of the heart, with special reference to the heart of the tortoise. J Physiol 1883; 4:43–127
- Gaskell WH. On the relation between the structure, function, distribution and origin of the cranial nerves. Journal of Physiology. 1890;10(3)
- Gaskell WH. The contraction of cardiac muscle. In: Schäfer EA, Text-book of Physiology. 1900; 2: 169–227
- Gaskell WH. The Origin of Vertebrates. London: Longmans, Green, 1908.
- Gaskell WH. The involuntary nervous system. London: Longmans, Green. 1916
- Garrison FH, Pike FH. Walter Holbrook Gaskell. Science 1914; 40: 802–7.
- Obituary. Walter Holbrook Gaskell. Lancet 1914;184(4793):869–70.
- Langdon-Brown W. W.H. Gaskell and the Cambridge Medical School. Proc Roy Soc Med 1939; 33: 1–12
- Bibliography. Gaskell, Walter Holbrook 1847-1914. WorldCat Identities
- Stannius HF. Zwei reihen physiologischer versuche; 1. versuche am froschherzen; 2. versuche mit blausäure [Two series of physiological experiments; 1. experiments on the frog heart; 2. experiments with prussic acid]. Archiv für Anatomie, Physiologie und Wissenschaftliche Medicin. 1852; 19: 85–100
- His Jr W. Die Thätigkeit des embryonalen Herzens und deren Bedeutung für die Lehre von der Herzbewegung beim Erwachsenen. Arbeiten aus der medicinischen Klinik zu Leipzig. Herausgegeben von H. Curschmann. 1893; 14 – 49. [The activity of the embryonic human heart and its significance for understanding of the heart movement in the adult Translated Bast TH, Gardner WD Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 1949; 4(3): 289–318.]
- Burch GE, De Pasquale NP. A History of Electrocardiography. Chicago: Year Book Medical Publishers, 1964:135
- Fye WB. The origin of the heart beat: a tale of frogs, jellyfish, and turtles. Circulation. 1987;76(3):493-500.
- Acierno LJ. The History of Cardiology. London, 1994:248
- Upshaw CB, Jr., Silverman ME. The Wenckebach phenomenon: a salute and comment on the centennial of its original description. Ann Intern Med 1999;130:58–63
- Fleming PR. British Cardiology 1900–50. In: Silverman ME et al. British Cardiology in the 20th Century. London: Springer, 2000:1–26
- Mazgalev TN, Ho SY, Anderson RH. Anatomic-electrophysiological correlations concerning the pathways for atrioventricular conduction. Circulation 2001;103:2660–7
- Cadogan M. History of Second-degree Atrioventricular block. LITFL
- Cadogan M. History of the Electrocardiogram. LITFL
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