Dickinson Woodruff Richards, Jr. Biography (1895-1973)


Dickinson Woodruff Richards, Jr. was born in 1895 in Orange, New Jersey to Sally (Lambert) and Dickinson Woodruff Richards. Richards received his A.B. from Yale University in 1917, and three months later enlisted in the United States Army, After serving in France with the American Expeditionary Force duringWorld War I, Richards entered the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia; there he completed his M.A. in physiology in 1922 and his M.D. in 1923.Richards immediately received his license to practice medicine. He spent hisearly career interning, conducting research, and studying experimental psychology. He then returned to Columbia University's Presbyterian Hospital to study pulmonary and circulatory physiology. In 1931 he married Constance Riley,a Wellesley College graduate who worked as a technician in his research lab at Presbyterian Hospital.

Richards' collaboration with André Cournand began in 1931 at BellevueHospital. Basing their research on Richards' concept "that lungs, heart, andcirculation should be thought of as one single apparatus for the transfer ofrespiratory gases between outside atmosphere and working tissues," these twophysicians began a long and fruitful partnership. Their initial research involved the study of the physiological performance of the lungs and, in particular, a disorder known as chronic pulmonary insufficiency. Characterized by a malfunction in the heart's tricuspid and pulmonic valves, this defect causes blood to flow backward into the heart. Richards concluded, as had others before him, that it was necessary to be able to measure the amount of air in the lungs during different stages of pulmonary activity. Thus, he and Cournand unearthed studies done in 1929 by the German physician Werner Forssmann, whereinForssmann had attempted to measure gases in the blood as it passed from theheart to the lungs.

Forssmann's technique was proven viable when he successfully inserted a narrow rubber catheter through a vein in his own arm and into the right atrium ofhis heart. This method gave access to blood as it entered the heart--blood that could then be examined in specific stages of pulmonary and cardiac activity and evaluated in terms of rate of flow, pressure relations, and gas contents. Catheterization would allow physicians to measure oxygen and carbon dioxide in blood returning from the right atrium, allowing for accurate measurementof blood flow through the lungs. Richards and Cournand sought to advance Forssmann's technique and to develop a safe procedure by first experimenting onanimals. They began their research in 1936, and by 1941 they had successfullycatheterized the right atrium of the human heart.

The measurements made possible through cardiac catheterization led Richards to other important assessments about functions of the heart and circulatory system. In 1941 he developed methods to measure the volume of blood pumped outof either ventricle (lower chamber) of the heart, and to measure blood pressure in the right atrium, the right ventricle, and the pulmonary artery, as well as total blood volume. More recent research has employed catheterization todiagnose abnormal exchange between the right and left sides of the heart, such as is present in some congenital cardiac defects. It has also contributedto the development of more sophisticated techniques such as angiocardiography(the X-ray examination of the heart after injection of dyes), which is usedto determine whether normal circulation has resumed following a surgical procedure.

Richards and his colleagues also relied on their revolutionary research technique to study the effects of traumatic shock in heart failure and to identifycongenital heart lesions. The most important result of this project was thediscovery that whole blood, rather than just blood plasma, should be used inthe treatment of shock to the cardiac system.

For their refinement of the catheterization procedure and the discoveries that followed, Richards, Cournand and Forssmann were awarded the Nobel Prize inphysiology or medicine in 1956. Richards was passionate about health issues in the social arena as well as in the laboratory. For example, in 1957 he testified before the Joint Legislative Committee on Narcotics Study to suggest the construction of hospital clinics to legally distribute narcotics to recovering addicts.

Richards was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1958, and retiredfrom practice in 1961, although he continued to lecture and publish frequentarticles for several years. He died at his home in Lakeville, Connecticut onFebruary 23, 1973, after suffering a heart attack.

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