Biography of Edgar Allen
Edgar Allen, a leading authority on the mechanisms of sex hormones, discovered oestrogen and investigated the hormonal mechanisms that control the female reproductive cycle.
Born in Colorado, Edgar Allen was the son of a physician. He received his early education in the public schools of Pawtucket and Cranston, Rhode Island. He attended Brown University and earned all of his higher degrees at that institution. He became Ph. B, in 1915, M.A. (biology), in 1916, and in 1921 was conferred doctor of philosophy with a dissertation on biology.
During World War I his studies were interrupted for a short time by military service. In 1918 he married Marion Pfeiffer of Providence; the couple had two daughters.
Allen's distinguished academic career began in 1919 when he was appointed instructor and associate of anatomy at the School of Medicine of Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri. In 1923 he was appointed professor of anatomy at the school of medicine, University of Missouri, where he subsequently became dean of the medical school and director of university hospitals He remained there for ten years before in 1933 returning to the east coast as professor of anatomy and chairman of the department at the Yale School of Medicine, a position he held until his death.
The mouse cycle
Allen's Ph. D. thesis, published in 1922, presented a detailed description of the cellular changes in primary and secondary sex organs over the course of a complete reproductive cycle in a female mouse.
During the early 1920's several investigators had suggested that the ovary might be the control centre for this cycle; it was thought that the fluid content of the corpus luteum might be the active agent of control. Allen's Ph. D. thesis cast doubt on this latter hypothesis. He noticed that at any given time during the cycle corpora lutea could be found in many different stages of degeneration, making it highly unlikely that they could be controlling a series of progressive histological changes.
Investigating the origins and development of the ovum in 1923, Allen observed that females do not possess a full complement of ova at birth but instead accumulate them by continual production in the germinal epithelium, and the follicles that develop around them have a cycle of growth and decay not unlike that of the corpus luteum. Allen hazarded that the ovarian follicles, not the corpus luteum, might be the controlling factor in the oestrous cycle. Seeking to confirm his suspicions, Allen, in collaboration with noted biochemist Edward A. Doisy, performed a series of experiments using fluid extracted from the ovarian follicle. It was found that repeated injections of the substance produced histological changes that replicated the early stages of a normal menstruation. When the substance was withheld the subject entered a later menstrual phase.
Allen and Doisy had discovered the existence and the effects of oestrogen. Within fifteen years the other hormones that influence oestrus were also discovered and the relations between them were becoming clear. All of Allen's subsequent works were concerned, in some way, with these sex hormones. He proved, for example, that oestrogen causes the onset of puberty in immature female animals and demonstrated that the hormonal mechanisms of primates (including man) are very similar to those of rodents, on which the original studies had been done.
Allen also studied the relation between oestrogen and malignancy, in order to determine whether there is any similarity between rapid cell growth caused by estrogenic stimulation and rapid cell growth that is characteristic of cancerous tissue. In addition, Allen's publications contain a wealth of methodological information that was of great value to subsequent researches in endocrinology.
Allen presided over the American Association of Anatomists and the Association for the Study of Internal Secretions, also serving as an advisory trustee (1939-1943) of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the International Cancer Research Foundation. In recognition of his significant role in the advancement of modern endocrinology he was made a member of the French Legion of Honour in 1937 and was awarded the prestigious Baly Medal of the British Royal College of Physicians in 1941.
A devoted sailor, Allen joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary at the onset of Long Island Sound.
His bibliography, containing more than 140 items, can be found in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 1944-1945, 17 part I, along with his curriculum vitae. The Yale Journal, 1943, 15, contains an excellent biographical sketch of Allen.