Early Cambridge Physiology and the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company

In the 19th century, the University of Cambridge was notorious for its conservatism toward science. It finally responded to calls for change by founding three scientific institutions in the 1870s: the Cavendish Laboratory, the Department of Mechanism and Applied Mechanics, and the Physiological Laboratory. This created a large, pressing demand for a variety of scientific instruments, but the departments' in-house instrument makers were unable to completely satisfy their needs. The crisis was resolved in 1881 with the foundation of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company (CSIC).

In its early years, most of the Company's business was generated by the Department of Physiology. Sir Michael Foster (the founder of the Department and the compiler of our Foster Collection) and his students sometimes collaborated with CSIC to create and improve instruments for their experiments on frogs. For instance, the Company commercially produced two frog cardiographs, each designed by one of Foster's former students. One of these men, Walter Holbrook Gaskell, used his frog cardiograph to make crucial discoveries, including the path of electrical conduction through the heart.

Cambridge physiologists continued to collaborate with CSIC for the entirety of its existence, but the scientist with the closest links to the Company was Keith Lucas (1879-1916). Lucas served both as a Trinity College lecturer in Natural Sciences and as a CSIC board member. He was an extremely skilled instrument designer, and the Company commercially produced several devices that he had originally custom-made for his own experiments on frogs. One of these is the Lucas Pendulum, which could open successive electrical circuits for short periods of time, thus stimulating a nerve or muscle. The Whipple Museum holds two CSIC Lucas Pendulums: Wh.5000 (1907) and Wh.4133 (1938). The production date of Wh. 4133 reveals that Lucas' pendulum was so excellent that it was sold for over thirty years with only minimal changes to its design.

Though Lucas' instruments could be used with multiple species, he described frog vivisections in all twenty-three articles that he published in the Journal of Physiology. In his only paper that was not dedicated to frog research, Lucas still used frog muscle, because he was so familiar with it, to calibrate his apparatus before beginning his actual experiments on crayfish.

Dannielle Cagliuso

Dannielle Cagliuso, 'Early Cambridge Physiology and the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, [http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/whipple/explore/frogs/departmentofphysiology/earlycambridgephysiology/]

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