History of the Department 1821-1949

1821-1875: The Origins

The origins of the teaching of Physiology can be traced back to the establishment of McGill College in 1821, and the inauguration of the Medical Institution (1823) by four physicians of the then newly established Montreal General Hospital. These four physicians decided upon an organized course of lectures for student residents at the Hospital and held the title of lecturer in Materia Medica and Physiology.


Campus in 1859

The Medical Institution merged with McGill College in 1829 and subsequently gained legal standing and academic prestige. During the next 30 years, a number of distinguished medical men occupied the position of lecturer in Physiology and Materia Medica, including Drs. Stephen Sewell (1843), Robert MacDonel (1845), William Fraser (1849) and Joseph Morley Drake (1872). During Drake’s tenure, the University opened the first medical building on campus and the 1872 graduating class included the then 22 year old William Osler.

McGill campus with Arts,Observatory, Presbyterian College, and Old Medical Building (1873-80)
Notman Archives (McCord Museum)

Dr. William Osler in 1909
(Osler library McGill University)
1876-1919: The Building Blocks

By 1875, William Osler was asked to take over the course at the Institutes. In 1876, he received the title Professor of Physiology, the youngest physiologist to hold that rank to this date. Osler was provided with a physiological laboratory, which he equipped; he spent time reorganizing and revitalizing the teaching of physiology. A detailed description of the equipment and a three-page account of that new laboratory appeared in the Canada Medical and Surgical Journal of 1880.

George Ralph Mines

In subsequent years, with the addition of electro-physiological equipment, students were able to experiment by observing action currents of heart, muscle and nerves. Research also greatly expanded both in variety and scope. The chair of the Department, Thomas Mills, delved into topics ranging from the innervation of the heart, mechanisms of oxalic acid secretion to aspects of animal intelligence and the physiology of singing.

However with the first world war, the Department entered a decade of instability and tragic events. In 1914, George Ralph Mines, a brilliant young promising physiologist from Cambridge became professor, but was found three months later dying in his laboratory, with no conclusive explanation.


1919-1949: The Heroic Age

With the First World War ending, and with Canadian and international contexts renewing interest in research (note the discovery of insulin at the University of Toronto), medical research at McGill entered a stimulating period. As facilities were expanded, the Laboratory of Physiology and Experimental Medicine (the Department’s new official title) embarked on its first golden age that would encompass 30 years. The joint work of the new chairman John Tait and a young otolaryngologist, W. J. McNally, was most productive.

Tait and McNally papers on the frog’s vestibular apparatus and its influence on posture became classics in the field. McNally subsequently went on to devote himself mainly to clinical work and established in 1961 the Institute of Otolaryngology of the Royal Victoria Hospital and McGill University with its still existing 3 divisions, the Clinical division, the Speech and Hearing Division, and the Research Division.

Hering's apparatus for demonstrating
the action of the respiratory pump

By 1928, Boris Babkin, an exile from Russia and one-time collaborator of Ivan Pavlov had joined the Department. He was a respected authority on the digestive glands; a group of graduate students, among them Margaret E. MacKay, the Department’s first female Ph.D. graduate, joined him. Babkin’s research branched out into entirely new areas: humoral transmission in the secretory innervation of the salivary glands (evidence for chemical transmission in mammals), experimental study of auditory conditioned reflexes.

The interests of the Department at that time would include the properties of blood and its constituents, the functional properties of heart muscle, the secretory activity of salivary glands, some aspects of immunity, humoral and hormonal mechanisms of the digestive system, mechanisms of conditioning, the functioning of special senses, and even certain aspects of psychiatry.

During this period, technological developments and innovations were emerging from the Department’s own machine shop that turned out many rough sketches into working prototypes with the help of enterprising McGill scientists and clinicians, including the surgeon Norman Bethune.


The Kymograph
The pressure and movement of a lever pressing onto a rotating drum (covered with paper) leaves a white trace, providing data of interest.


To be noted in the early 1940’s, the arrival of a refugee engineer and biophysicist from Yugoslavia, Paul Sekelj who received a joint appointment in Physiology and in the Biophysics Department at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. He developed the first clinically useful whole-blood oximeter, a novel type of automatic instantaneous heart rate monitor, and many other instrumentation prototypes.

Marey's sphygmograph for taking a tracing of the radial pulse
From Practical Physiology, Cathcart, Paton and Pembrey, 2nd ed. 1925
(Instruments used in laboratories circa 1920)

The Duboscq colorimeter

A spirometer

>> Continue with History from 1949 to the Present

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