It’s that time of year again! The Royal Society is getting ready to welcome visitors to its annual Summer Science Exhibition, a week of hands-on activities, talks and events focused on cutting-edge research. The event started life in the nineteenth century as Soirées, or Conversazioni (see this previous blog post); only recently did I learn, however, that in 1909 there was an exhibit which became the first and – as far as I’m aware – only Soirée demonstration to trigger a debate in Parliament.
The exhibit, presented by Augustus Desiré Waller FRS and entitled ‘Demonstration of the electrical variations of the human heart and of the dog’s heart on Einthoven’s string galvanometer’, involved a dog named Jimmy, one of several bulldogs owned by the Waller family, and presumably the most patient. Jimmy stood with his paws in a jar of saline solution, the jars themselves being attached to a galvanometer. In Parliament the anti-vivisection lobby queried whether the exhibit had contravened the Cruelty to Animals Act (1876). The Secretary of State, Herbert Gladstone, replied that the dog was quite unharmed, remarking that ‘If my hon. Friend has ever paddled in the sea, he will understand the sensation’, Jimmy was quite accustomed to this sort of thing and liked (or at least didn’t visibly object to) standing in the water.
The Mercury newspaper of Tasmania reported that the bulldog was not inconvenienced in the least, and that ‘some ladies witnessed their own “heart beats” by dipping a hand into either pot’, leading to discussion of the difference between human and canine heart rates. The Mercury editorial also includes the rather fantastic observation that, at the Soirées, ‘heavy browed savants unbend’ (which I’d be tempted to include on the advertisements for next year’s exhibition if I’m honest), adding that ‘for once they condescend to admit the average man and woman into their mysteries’. Rest assured there’s no condescension these days!
Waller was a distinguished physiologist and had lectured at the Royal Free and St Mary’s hospitals. He presented the 1896 Croonian Lecture and became Fullerian professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution the following year. His research interests began in the emerging field of electro-physiology and he remained dedicated to experimental work throughout his life. Waller also had a laboratory at his home where, aided by his wife, who had studied medicine herself, and their children, who were often used as subjects, he undertook research and entertained visiting scientists. Waller was the first to obtain an electrocardiogram of the human heart in 1887, an important advance with later widespread medical applications.
I knew I’d encountered Waller’s name before whilst cataloguing a series of the Society’s Letter Books of outgoing administrative correspondence. A quick search revealed that, back in 1902, Waller was set to give a practical demonstration to the Fellows at the reading of one of his papers. Unfortunately, however, a breakdown in communication led to a misunderstanding regarding his experimental subjects – a consignment of fish from Grimsby, our correspondence sadly records, was sent on to Waller’s home as the porter at the Royal Society’s Burlington House headquarters ‘could not reasonably be expected’ to associate a basket of fish with ‘Blaze currents’ (electrical responses to stimuli).
We look forward to welcoming you to this year’s Summer Science Exhibition, and I can safely promise that no animals will be harmed during our demonstrations. Please note that the Library is closed to readers during this period (Monday 4 – Friday 8 July inclusive), perhaps making it the ideal time to catch up on the latest Objectivity video discussing another intriguing Soirée exhibit on early X-ray technology. Enjoy the exhibition!