Richard Lower Biography (1631-1691)

physician, physiologist

Richard Lower was a pioneer in seventeenth century medicine because of his studies in experimental physiology. His observations about the circulation andtransfusion of blood led to some of the most significant discoveries in the history of medicine. He is still regarded as one of Oxford's finest doctors.

Lower studied at Westminster School and Christ Church College, Oxford, wherehe earned an M.A. in 1655 and an M.D. in 1665. He was named Sedleian professor of natural philosophy in 1660. Lower was a medical student under Thomas Willis and then collaborated with him to investigate the nervous system. Simultaneously, Lower began his own research on the heart. He traced the circulationof blood as it passes through the lungs and learned that it changes when exposed to air. Lower was the first to observe the difference in arterial and venous blood.

Lower showed it was possible for blood to be transfused from animal to animaland from animal to man intravenously. In November 1667, Lower worked with Sir William King, another student of Willis, to transfuse sheep's blood into aman who was mentally ill. Lower was interested in advancing science but alsobelieved the man could be helped, either by the infusion of fresh blood or bythe removal of old blood. It was difficult to find people who would agree tobe transfused, but an eccentric scholar, Arthur Coga, consented and the procedure was carried out by Lower and King before the Royal Society on November23, 1667. Transfusion gathered some popularity in France and Italy, but medical and theological debates arose, resulting in transfusion being prohibited in France.

Lower studied the arterial circle at the base of the brain, named the circleof Willis after his teacher. He wanted to see if blood would continue to flowthrough the head if three of the four arteries supplying blood to the head were tied.

Lower also investigated to see how cerebrospinal fluid was formed and how itcirculated. These experiments led to a study of hydrocephalus, a disease in which fluid collects in the cavities of the brain. In Lower's time, it was thought that catarrh, an inflammation of the mucous membranes, might be caused by seepage of fluid from the brain to the nose. De Catarrhis, Lower's book, is of historical significance because it was the first scholarly attemptby an English physician to take a classical doctrine (the theory that nasalsecretions are an overspill from the brain) and to disprove it by scientificexperiment.

Lower wrote Diatribae T. Willisii de Febribus Vindicatio, an eight-volume defense of Dr. Willis and his doctrine of fevers. In keeping with his interest in the circulatory system, Lower went on to write Tractatus de Corde, which described the muscular fibers of the heart, a method of ligaturing veins to produce dropsy, blood coagulation in the heart, the motion of digestive fluids, and other physiologic topics. Lower presented his Tractatusde Corde to the Royal Society in 1669.

Willis died in 1675 and Lower became busy with the demands of his medical practice and didn't have time to conduct experiments.

Lower took care of Charles II during his last illness in 1685. When James IItook the throne, Lower did not continue as court physician because of the unpopularity of his anti-Catholic and Whiggish sentiments. Lower died in Londonfrom a fever.

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