American Medical Biographies/Allen, Harrison

Allen, Harrison (1841–1897)

Harrison Allen, born in Philadelphia, April 17, 1841, was the son of Samuel Allen and of Elizabeth Justice Thomas. On his father's side he was descended from Samuel Allen, who came over here from England with William Penn. He had his early education in the public grammar schools and at the Central High School of Phialdelphia, and as a boy was greatly interested in natural history, and though afterwards he would have preferred pure science, financial considerations led him to study medicine, including dentistry

It became necessary for Allen to leave school during his high school course and seek work. He tried two or three things and finally studied dentistry under Dr. J. Foster Flagg (q.v.), devoting his spare moments to reading medical books, and taking the regular courses in medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated in 1861. Upon graduation he became a resident physician in the Blockley Hospital, Philadelphia.

He was for the greater part of the war stationed in hospitals in and near Washington where a large part of his limited leisure was spent at the Smithsonian Institution, and there he came under the influence of Professors Joseph Henry and Spencer F. Baird.

Upon his resignation from the army Allen entered upon the practice of medicine in Philadelphia. Partly owing to his dental education he was led to develop the special surgery of the air passages, and among his fifty-odd papers on medical and surgical subjects, many relate more or less closely to this field of work.

At the time Harrison Allen began the practice of medicine there was little opportunity for a man to earn his living by entire devotion to science and teaching. While he was forced into practice for a livelihood, his deeper interests were in natural science, and these led him to welcome the ill-paid teaching positions offered.

Meanwhile, in the midst of practice and teaching he was actively engaged in scientific investigation, much influenced at first by his teacher, Joseph Leidy (q.v.). He joined the group of investigators which worked in the building occupied by the well known Philadelphia School of Anatomy and became an active member of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences.

The subject of his thesis at graduation was "Entozoa Hominis." This title suggests the guiding hand of Joseph Leidy, who did so much in this field. Allen's first published scientific paper, entitled "A Description of New Pteropine Bats from Africa," appeared in the "Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences" in July, 1861. This was the beginning of a series of some thirty-odd papers relating to bats. Of these the most important was his "Monograph on the Bats of North America" published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1864 and brought out in a second revised edition in 1893. In the course of his studies on bats Allen gathered a considerable private collection of specimens which he bequeathed to the Academy of Natural Sciences at Philadephia. While his work on bats constituted Allen's most important scientific contribution he published numerous valuable papers on other subjects including the joints, the muscles, locomotion, distribution of color markings and craniology. He dissected and described the Siamese twins. In craniology his most important papers were on "Crania from Florida Mounds" (Proceedings of the Philadelphia Academy, 1896) and on "Hawaiian Skulls" (Proceedings of the Wagner Free Institute of Science, 1898). In both papers he paid special attention to individual adaptation of skull form to function and depreciated craniology as a certain criterion of race.

Harrison Allen published two text-books, one in 1869 called "Outlines of Comparative Anatomy and Medical Zoology," the other in 1884, entitled "A System of Human Anatomy." The latter book is clearly written. The subject is taken up from the medical and surgical aspects. It was not commercially very successful, although the fruit of much painstaking labor.

In 1891 Allen published under the title "Addresses in Anatomy" a number of addresses previously delivered on the teaching and applications of anatomy. He did not believe that anatomy for medical students should be a mere handmaid of clinical surgery. To so teach anatomy he believed to be against the best interests not only of anatomy as a science, but also ultimately in its practical applications to medicine. He believed in taking it up from the morphological standpoint and that "morphology embraces all animated structures in a scheme of philosophy."

Allen was the first to suggest the term pedomorphism in describing infantile characters in the bodies of adults.

In a work on "An Analysis of Life Form in Art" (1875) he collected much interesting material relating to design.

In all undertakings he devoted the most patient attention to detail and was an exquisitely skilful dissector, although paying comparatively little attention to the technic of microscopic anatomy. As an example of Allen's methods of work, Brinton gives an account of his preparation of a paper on the "Jaw of Moulin-Quignon." This jaw was found in the Abbeville gravels in 1863, and was claimed by some to be that of a prehistoric man, while by others this was disputed. Allen became interested and took up the study of the human mandible with these questions in view:

  1. What is the pattern of an ordinary jaw?
  2. What is the value of the lower jaw in man as a test characteristic of race?

Allen visited every important anatomical collection in Philadelphia and studied over four hundred inferior maxillæ. His results he based on the three hundred and twenty more perfect specimens. He came to the conclusion that the lower jaw is of little value as a test character of race owing to its wide variations everywhere.

Wilder gives the following summary of Allen's character:

"Pre-eminent among Dr. Allen's many admirable traits was his readiness to recognize the good qualities of others. Even respecting bores or those who wronged him I do not recall an unkind remark. So decided, indeed, was his predisposition to find some extenuating quality in even the most flagitious transgressor that had the devil been objurgated in his presence we may imagine him to add: 'His Satanic majesty has doubtless many sins to answer for, but let us not forget his extraordinary ability, activity, and enterprise.'

"I could occupy much time with details of my dear friend's life and nature, but content myself with enumerating what seem to me rare combinations of characteristics. An ardent naturalist and daily handling specimens variously preserved, he was fastidiously neat in person and apparel."

In December, 1869, Harrison Allen married Julia A., daughter of S. W. Colton, of Long-meadow, Massachusetts, who survived him with a son and a daughter.

Among his other appointments he was: acting assistant surgeon, 1862; assistant surgeon in the United States Army, 1862. He served throughout the war and resigned in December, 1865, with the title of Brevet-major.

He was professor of anatomy and surgery at the Pennsylvania Dental College, 1866–78; president of the American Laryngological Association, 1886; visiting surgeon to the Philadelphia Hospital, 1874–78; assistant surgeon to Wills Eye Hospital, 1868–70, and to St. Joseph's Hospital, 1870–78.

In 1865 he was appointed to the chair of comparative anatomy and zoology in the auxiliary department of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania; in 1878 to the chair of the institutes of medicine in the medical department of the University; 1885 saw him emeritus professor of the institutes of medicine, and in 1891 he once more assumed the chair of comparative anatomy and zoology which he held until 1896. He was thus connected with the University of Pennsylvania as a teacher for over thirty years. Among other scientific societies to which he belonged may be mentioned the Natural History Society of Boston, the Philadelphia Pathological Society, the Washington Biological Society, the Association of American Anatomists, of which he was president from 1891–1893, and the Anthropomorphic Society, of which he became president in 1891.

He died suddenly November 14, 1897.

A list of his work is in Proceedings of the Tenth Annual Session of the Association of American Anatomists held in Ithaca, December, 1897.

Harrison Allen, by Burt G. Wilder. Proceedings of the Association of American Anatomists, December. 1897. A brief biography with portrait and bibliography.
Dr. Allen's Contributions to Anthropology, by D. G. Brinton. Proceedings of the Philadelphia Academy of Arts and Science, December 31, 1897.
Dr Allen's Zoological Work, by S. N. Rhoads, same proceedings.
Biographical notes of Harrison Allen and George Henry Horn, same proceedings.