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COLLECTION Identifier: H MS c28

William Townsend Porter papers


The William Townsend Porter papers, 1851-1955, undated, provide a record of Porter's administrative, teaching, and research activities at Harvard Medical School, the establishment and operation of the Harvard Apparatus Company, and his personal life.


  • 1851-1955


Language of Materials


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Collection is open for research. Access requires advance notice. Consult Public Services for further information.

Conditions Governing Use

The Harvard Medical Library does not hold copyright on all materials in the collection. Researchers are responsible for identifying and contacting any third-party copyright holders for permission to reproduce or publish. For more information on the Center's use, publication, and reproduction policies, view our Reproductions and Use Policy.


4.8 cubic feet (3 record cartons, 2 flat document boxes, 1 document box, 1 half-document box, 1 lantern slide box, and 1 photograph box)

The William Townsend Porter papers, 1851-1955, undated, are the product of WTP's administrative, teaching, research, and professional activities at HMS, and his personal life. The papers also include personal records and WTP's early physiological research at St. Louis Medical College, and at the Universities of Kiel, Breslau, and Berlin. Topics include the structure of Ranvier's nodes and the relationship between childhood growth and mental development. Harvard Medical School records include teaching and administrative records, research notes, and clinical studies. Topics include heart nerves, the seasonal growth of Boston school children, and the innervation of respiration. Financial records, business correspondence, and publications are the product of the creation and operation of the Harvard Apparatus Company, and professional correspondence with United States and international physicians from his editorial and management activities at the American Physiological Society are also included. The papers include some family correspondence, personal writings, travel and journal entries, photographs and daguerreotypes.


William Townsend Porter (WTP), Professor of Comparative Physiology at Harvard Medical School (HMS), where he conducted research on the heart, and on the growth and development of schoolchildren. WTP was born in Plymouth, Ohio to Dr. Frank (FP) and Martha Porter (MP) in 1862, both of whom died when he was 17. He worked his way through St. Louis Medical College, receiving the MD in 1885, and spent the following year studying at the Universities of Kiel, Breslau and Berlin in the laboratories of Walther Flemming, Karl Hurthle and Rudolf Heidenhain. After returning to St. Louis, he served as acting superintendent of the St. Louis City Hospital for one year and as Assistant Professor and Professor of Physiology at the St. Louis Medical College from 1887 to 1893. At St. Louis Medical College, building upon his experience in Germany, Porter established the first laboratory of physiology in the Midwest and conducted extensive physiological research on the structure of Ranvier's nodes and the relationship between childhood growth and mental development. His publications on ventricular filling and pressure, control of respiration, coronary circulation, origin of the heart beat, and physical and mental development of children, drew the attention of Henry Pickering Bowditch at HMS.

Before moving to Boston, WTP married Alma Canfield Sterling (ASP) of St. Louis; they had one child, Hildegarde (HP). In 1893, Bowditch persuaded WTP to join the Department of Physiology at HMS. He was Assistant Professor of Physiology at HMS from 1893 to 1898, Associate Professor from 1898 to 1906, and then Professor of Comparative Physiology until retirement in 1928, when he became Emeritus. During his tenure at HMS, WTP spent the years 1916-1918 in France, studying the effects of shock on the wounded at the request of the Rockefeller Institute.

While at HMS, WTP reorganized the teaching of physiology and introduced student laboratory experiments as a regular part of the curriculum. He recognized his new laboratory courses in physiology required the use of physiological instruments, such as the kymograph, most of which were expensive and imported from Europe. To meet the needs of students WTP began simplifying existing laboratory equipment, inventing new apparati, and reducing costs by producing in producing in quantity. In 1901, after other medical schools inquired about his laboratory equipment, WTP established the Harvard Apparatus Company as a nonprofit educational institution. WTP used the profits were used to establish a pension fund for the company's employees, make improvements in production equipment, and to establish the W.T. Porter Research Fellowship in 1921. The company continued to provide low cost equipment for research and teaching in physiology and pharmacology in the United States and abroad into the twentieth century.

From 1898 until 1914, WTP managed editorship and full financial responsibility for the American Journal of Physiology. During these years, WTP published many articles in professional journals on the physiology of the heart. He also published various editions of several texts, including Introduction to Physiology, first published in 1901, Experiments for Students in the Harvard Medical School, first published in 1901, and Physiology at Harvard, first published in 1903. In 1914 he turned the American Journal of Physiology over to the American Physiological Society. WTP died in 1949.

Series and Subseries Arrangement

  1. Series I. Family and Personal Papers, 1851-1949, undated
  2. ___Subseries A. William Townsend Porter Personal Records, 1916-1949
  3. ___Subseries B. Alma Sterling Porter Correspondence and Will, 1902-1937
  4. ___Subseries C. Frank and Martha Porter Correspondence and Writings, 1851-1872
  5. ___Subseries D. Hildegarde Porter Letter and Writings, 1918-1920
  6. ___Subseries E. Family Correspondence and History, 1870-1929
  7. ___Subseries F. Family Photographs, 1890-1895, undated
  8. Series II. Early Research Records, 1884-1897, undated
  9. ___Subseries A. St. Louis Medical College Research Records, 1884-1897
  10. ___Subseries B. Universities of Kiel, Breslau and Berlin Research Records, 1885-1894
  11. Series III. Harvard Medical School Records, 1878-1949, undated
  12. ___Subseries A. Administrative and Teaching Activities Records, 1898-1927
  13. ___Subseries B. Research Records, 1878-1949
  14. ___Subseries C. Photographs, c. 1930, undated
  15. Series IV. Harvard Apparatus Company Records, 1901-1955, undated
  16. ___Subseries A. Administrative Records, 1901-1955
  17. ___Subseries B. Photographs and Glass Negatives, undated
  18. Series V. Professional Activities Correspondence, 1893-1948
  19. Series VI. Writings, 1892-1918


Photographs and daguerreotypes are listed in the order in which they appear, and are housed separately in box 4. Glass negatives are housed in box 6. Boxes 4 and 6 are housed with Center for the History of Medicine daguerreotypes in row 1, unit 5, shelf 6 in the Center for the History of Medicine's stacks. WTP's academic hood is housed in box 5.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The William T. Porter papers were donated to the Harvard Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine by his family in 1958.

Addition of 2018 was separated from the Clifford A. Barger papers (H MS c478).

Processing Information

Processed by Amara Edwards, April 2002

Processing note: When surveyed in 2002 the collection was divided into three parts. The three groups were interfiled, and original order was retained when possible. The collection was organized into six series. Duplicates and unrelated items were discarded.

An addition was processed and incorporated into the collection by Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook, 08 May 2018. Addition included checkbooks added to Subseries I.A., correspondence and other documents of Alma Sterling Porter added to subseries I.B., and reprints added to series VI.

All items in the addition were added to the current arrangement. Realia were housed separately for preservation purposes and photographs were placed in archival sleeves. Two torn items were photocopied for preservation. Folded legal-size items were unfolded and flattened. A badly damaged dried flower with no accompanying information was discarded.

Porter, William Townsend, 1862-1949. Papers, 1851-1955, undated : Finding Aid. H MS c28
Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. Center for the History of Medicine.
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Center for the History of Medicine (Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine) Repository

The Center for the History of Medicine in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine is one of the world's leading resources for the study of the history of health and medicine. Our mission is to enable the history of medicine and public health to inform healthcare, the health sciences, and the societies in which they are embedded.

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