Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Waller, Augustus Volney

732166Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 59 — Waller, Augustus Volney1899D'Arcy Power

WALLER, AUGUSTUS VOLNEY (1816–1870), physiologist, son of William Waller of Elverton Farm, near Faversham, Kent, was born on 21 Dec. 1816. His youth was spent at Nice, where his father died in 1830. Waller was then sent back to England, where he lived, first with Dr. Lacon Lambe of Tewkesbury, and afterwards with William Lambe (1765–1847) [q. v.], the vegetarian. His father sharing Lambe's views, Augustus was brought up until the age of eighteen upon a purely vegetarian diet. Waller studied in Paris, where he obtained the degree of M.D. in 1840, and in the following year he was admitted a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries in London. He then entered upon general medical practice at St. Mary Abbott's Terrace, Kensington. He soon acquired a considerable practice, but he was irresistibly drawn to scientific investigation, and, after the publication of two papers in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ for 1849 and 1850, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1851. He relinquished his practice in this year, and left England to live at Bonn to obtain more favourable opportunities for carrying out his scientific work. Here he became associated with Professor Budge, and published three important papers in the ‘Comptes Rendus’ for 1851 and 1852, upon subjects of physiological interest. For these papers he was awarded the Monthyon prize of the French academy of sciences for 1852, and for further work this prize was given to him a second time in 1856. The president and council of the Royal Society also awarded him one of their royal medals in 1860 in recognition of the importance of his physiological methods and researches.

Waller left Bonn in 1856, and went to Paris to continue his work in Flourens's laboratory at the Jardin des Plantes; but he soon contracted some form of low fever, which left him an invalid for the next two years. He accordingly returned to England, and, his health improving, he accepted in 1858 the appointment of professor of physiology in Queen's College, Birmingham, and the post of physician to the hospital. These appointments he did not long retain. Threatenings of the heart affection which eventually proved fatal led him to seek rest, and, after staying two years longer in England, he retired first to Bruges and afterwards to Switzerland. With renewed promise of health and activity, he took up his abode at Geneva in 1868, with the purpose of practising as a physician, and he was almost immediately elected a member of the Société de Physique et d'Histoire Naturelle in that town. He paid a short visit to London in the spring of 1879 to deliver the Croonian lecture before the Royal Society, and he afterwards returned to Geneva, where he died suddenly of angina pectoris on 18 Sept. 1870. He married, in 1842, Matilda, only daughter of John Walls of North End, Fulham, and by her had one son, Augustus Waller, M.D., F.R.S., the physiologist, and two daughters.

Waller was endowed with a remarkable aptitude for original investigation. Quick to perceive new and promising lines of research, and happy in devising processes for following them out, he possessed consummate skill and address in experimental work. His discoveries in connection with the nervous system constitute his most conspicuous claim to distinction, and the fields he first traversed have proved fruitful beyond imagination, for they have led directly to nearly all that we know experimentally of the functions of the nervous system. His demonstration of the cilio-spinal centre in the spinal cord and of the vaso-constrictor action of the sympathetic has withstood the test of time, while his name will long be associated with the degeneration method of studying the paths of nerve impulses, for he invented it. He did not confine himself to a consideration of the nervous system, however, for he practically rediscovered the power which the white blood corpuscles possess of escaping from the smallest blood-vessels, while some of his earlier work was concerned with purely physical problems.

Waller's papers are widely scattered, and have never been collected. The most important are to be found in the ‘Comptes Rendus,’ in the ‘Philosophical Magazine,’ and in the ‘Philosophical Transactions.’ The ‘Wallerian Degeneration’ is described in the ‘Comptes Rendus,’ 1 Dec. 1851. The demonstration of the cilio-spinal centre was the result of work done jointly with Professor Budge, and is described in the ‘Comptes Rendus’ for October 1851. The function of the ganglion on the posterior root of each spinal nerve is published in the ‘Comptes Rendus’ (xxxv. 524). ‘The Microscopic Observations on the Perforation of the Capillaries by the Corpuscles of the Blood, and on the Origin of Mucus and Pus,’ appeared in the ‘Philosophical Magazine’ for November 1846, while the ‘Microscopic Investigations on Hail’ were printed in the same journal for July and August 1846 and March 1847.

[Obituary notices in the Proc. Royal Soc. 1871, xx. 20, and in the Mémoires de la Soc. de Physique et d'Histoire Naturelle de Genève, tome xxi., première partie, 1871; additional information given by his son, Augustus Waller, M.D., F.R.S.]

D’A. P.