The Society of General Physiologists was founded in 1946. It started when a group of general physiologists at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, MA—H.A. Amberson (University of Maryland), S.C. Brooks (University of California at Berkeley), E.N. Harvey (Princeton University), M.H. Jacobs (University of Pennsylvania), R.S. Lillie (University of Chicago), A.K. Parpart (Princeton University), E. Ponder (Cold Spring Harbor), and L.V. Heilbrunn (University of Pennsylvania)—discussed the formation of a society as a spin-off of the American Physiological Society (APS). The Woods Hole group felt that the APS was too strongly dominated by medical physiologists, to the extent that general physiology suffered. A letter was sent to many physiologists to determine the level of interest in this new endeavor. The reply from Wallace Fenn (the secretary of APS) was typical. He thought that the APS was sufficiently flexible to allow for a subgroup of general physiologists; nevertheless, he concluded, “If the group is formed I would probably feel unhappy to be left out of it.”
The first meeting was in September 1946. A letter from Heilbrunn to H.B. Steinbach reports that at the business meeting support for the new society was unanimous except for one individual, who was of the opinion that other societies were adequate. With that vote a committee was formed to draw up a constitution, dues were set at $1.00, and the first officers were elected: Heilbrunn, president; R. Robbins, vice-president; Parpart, secretary treasurer. The purpose of the society as stated in the constitution was to promote “interest in fundamental physiological processes in a broad sense, not in application of physiological knowledge.” Plants as well as animals and bacteria were to be included. There were 114 charter members; I am dismayed that I am the only one still active in physiological research. Two others are alive, but unable to function as physiologists.
Beginning in 1950, each meeting has centered around a symposium. Since 1974 all meetings have been held in Woods Hole. The early meetings always included a cocktail party, often on the lawn of the Robert Chambers home across from the Woods Hole harbor. Discussions were lively. Heilbrunn was always good for an argument about the importance of calcium for most cell functions. He had a paper with his student Wiercinski at the first meeting. I am pleased to note that Heilbrunn, in recent years, has been fully vindicated in his enthusiasm for calcium. Another controversial figure was Nachmansohn, who lost no opportunity to defend his idea that acetylcholine plays a role in nerve conduction.
A perusal of the titles of the symposia show that over the years, the topics of the meetings have shifted from general biological issues to questions related to membranes and energetics—with a good mix of molecular genetics. Molecular techniques have been introduced as tools to answer general physiological questions, not as ends in themselves. Inspection of the list of symposia illustrates the evolution of general physiology and how the central topics of the early years recur. Nevertheless, many early members, who were concerned with the general physiology of plants and animals, would not understand the papers of the past ten years. Also, I note, fewer papers today deal with plants than in the beginning. Perhaps to the surprise of the founding members, our meetings have been increasingly attended by members from medical schools. Most members today would agree that some medical problems can be considered proper general physiology.
The society membership has discussed both the serious, and the less serious, issues of physiology. At the Ninth Annual Meeting of the society 1954, for example, there was a paper by an Eliseo Jesus Coraje. Coraje was a Central American savant, who had been invented prior to 1938 and endowed with an impressive set of fictitious credentials. He had gotten into the Sixth Edition of the (then male chauvinist) American Men of Science (p. 291, 1938). He is also in the Seventh (1944) and Eighth (1949) Editions. One of the duties of the secretary of the SGP was to ensure that this flamboyant individual, who among other topics was an expert in the “nubility . . . in tropical peoples” was maintained in the American Men of Science. Nevertheless, Dr. Coraje was not to be found in the Ninth Edition (1955). The title of Dr. Coraje’s presentation at the 1954 meeting was indicative of his wide interests: “A Physiological Critique of Gilberts’ Glacial Integration Theory.” When Coraje did not show up at the meeting, there was an announcement that “a delayed and somewhat cryptic telegram suggests that Professor Coraje had been cut off by a glacier in the remote Brooks Range” (Abstract No. 22, Journal of Cellular and Comparative Physiology. 1954. 44:339).
Since 1961 the society has been associated with The Journal of General Physiology (JGP), which was founded in 1919 by Jacques Loeb and W.J.V. Osterhout. These two investigators had a long association with the MBL. Loeb established the first course in Physiology at the MBL in 1895; Osterhout worked there for many years and was one of the founding members of the society. The abstracts of the annual meeting are published in the JGP, and many of these abstracts have developed into full length papers in the same journal. It is with some pride to note that many of the pivotal papers in physiology have appeared in the JGP. With the continued support of the society membership, it should continue.
On the whole, we have adhered to the objectives stated by our founders fifty years ago. May the Society of General Physiologists continue to play an important role in the biological sciences!