Augustus Volney Waller

Born 1816
Died 1870

Related eponyms


English neurophysiologist, born December 21, 1816, Elverton Farm near Faversham, Kent; died September 18, 1870, Geneva, Switzerland.

Biography of Augustus Volney Waller

Augustus Volney Waller, the son of William Waller, was raised in the south of France, in Nice, until his father’s death in 1830. Augustus was 14 year old when he returned to school in England, living with Dr. Lacon Lambe and then with William Lambe (1765-1847), and eccentric vegetarian who believed that almost all diseases were caused by animal diet and the poor water in London. Following early training in the physical sciences, Waller studied medicine at Paris, receiving the M.D. degree in 1840.

A student takes a closer look
In his student years, between 1834 and 1840, Waller became involved in microscopy. It was a time of great advances in the subject. The resolution of microscopes had been improved by the introduction of the achromatic lens by Lister in 1826 and the first systematic account of animal histology was published by Hodgkin and Lister in 1827. One of the earliest histologists was Waller’s teacher, Alfred Donné (1801-1878), whose MD thesis on the formation of pus and blood cells might have stimulated Waller’s later interest in leukocyte movements. It was in this period that Waller became interested in the histology of the frog’s tongue.

The cell theory of animal structure was enunciated by Schwann in 1839, but even then it was still thought that cells could arise anew from a non-cellular soup called the blastema. In retrospect this concept can be seen to be as fanciful as that of phlogiston but it was widely accepted until laid to rest by Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902) with his famous aphorism og 1858, “omnis cellula e cellula.”

The practitioner
While physiology in France and Germany was now in advanced state and status, physiology in England was still unorganised and unrecognised. It was seen as a minor part of preclinical education and was often taught by recent graduates while preparing for higher qualifications. With few career opportunities available for physiologists, Waller made his living from medical practice for most of his life. In 1841 he became a licentiate of the Society of apothecaries in London and began a successful general practice in Kensington. In 1842 Waller married Matilda Walls; they had two daughters and one son, the physiologist Augustus Desiré. Waller. He lived in Kensington for 10 years, but whenever he could spare the time he undertook histological studies and during this time published two papers in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. These papers, of 1849 and 1850, led to Waller’s election as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1851.

One concerned the diapedesis of red cells which had already been described by Addison. The other dealt with the section of the glosso-pharyngeal and hyperglossal nerves of the frog in which he showed that the distal segment cut off from the cells underwent degeneration, whilst the proximal segment remained intact for a long period of time. He concluded that nerve fibres were simply prolongations of the cells from which they derived their nourishment and from this arose the term Wallerian degeneration. He severed the anterior spinal nerve root and the resultant degeneration showed that the main part of the cell was in the spinal cord, whereas when the posterior root was sectioned they were in the posterior root ganglia.

Full time scientist
For his few years in full-time research (1850-1858), Waller had no staff appointment and presumably lived on his own resources. In 1851 he abandoned general practice and moved to Bonn in order to devote full time to research; he spent five years there, working principally with the ophthalmologist professor Julius Ludwig Budge (1811-1888). An important part of their work was on the control of the size of the pupil. Together they described the vasodilator activity of the cervical sympathetic, confirming the findings of Claude Bernard and Brown-Séquard.

The investigations begun in England and continued in Bonn twice brought Waller the Monthyon Prize of the French Academy of Sciences; in 1852 for his work with Budge and in 1856 for the work on the pathway of degeneration. In 1860 he received a Royal Society medal.

In 1856 Waller moved from Bonn to Paris working in Marie Jean Pierre Flourens's (1794-1867) laboratory at the Jardin des Plantes but developed a chronic fever that invalided him for two years.

Death in Geneva
He spent two years in England in an effort to regain his health and in 1858 was appointed professor of physiology at Queen's College, Birmingham, and physician to the college hospital. However, a heart condition soon forced him to relinquish these posts, and in the same year he retired to Bruges. Ten years later, in 1868, he moved to Geneva, where he hoped to resume general practice, but was troubled with angina. In the spring of 1870 Waller went briefly to London to deliver the Royal Society’s Croonian lecture. He returned to Geneva, where he died suddenly on September 18.

"I am the Wallerian degeneration"
His son Augustus Desiré Waller (1856-1922) was also a distinguished physiologist and in 1887 demonstrated an electric current in the human heart by placing electrode on the surface of the body, the forerunner of the electrocardiogram. On one occasion when his father’s name was mentioned the younger Waller remarked I am the Wallerian degeneration.

Augustus Desiré Waller, in dedicating his textbook of physiology to his father’s memory, summarizes his father’s main achievements as: “Emigration of leukocytes, 1846; degeneration of nerve, 1850; cilio-spinal region, 1851; vaso-constrictor action of sympathetic, 1853.” To this list may be added his clinical experiments on the manual compression of the cervical blood vessels or nerves in man.

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