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An Unsung Hero of Medical Research
A technique invented nearly 100 years ago by a Yale scientist led to a revolution in biology.

Early in the 20th century, a shy and self-effacing Yale professor of anatomy named Ross Granville Harrison discovered a way to grow cells outside the body. At the time, “tissue culture” was a curiosity, but in 1998, historians of science Meyer Friedman and Gerald W. Friedland named it one of “medicine’s ten greatest discoveries.”

Friedman and Friedland placed Harrison in the company of nine other notables, among them William Harvey, who discovered the nature of blood circulation, and Edward Jenner, who pioneered an effective vaccine against smallpox. Tissue culture has made possible the study of living organisms at the cellular and molecular level and led to the development of modern vaccines, and yet Harrison, once described by Fortune as “America’s most famous unknown scientist,” remains so today.


Ross Granville Harrison, “America’s most famous unknown scientist.”

However, for most of the first half of the 20th century at Yale, Harrison was an influential force in teaching and research. Some biology had been taught as part of the undergraduate course in natural philosophy, but in 1870 Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School began offering the “Biological Course,” one of the first premedical courses in the country. Yale College students who planned to study medicine clamored for admission, and in 1888, the Yale and Sheff faculties opened it to all students. This was the first step toward uniting the schools.

By 1906 developments in biology and the need for improved facilities brought them closer, and in 1907 the faculties jointly appointed Harrison to a vacant Sheff professorship of comparative anatomy. President Hadley lured the 37-year-old associate professor from Johns Hopkins Medical School by offering him a full professorship and by promising to create a separate zoology department in a new biological sciences building.

When he arrived, Harrison continued experiments begun at Johns Hopkins, and from 1907 to 1910, he published the results of his invention of tissue culture methodology. He also directed the building of the Osborn Memorial Laboratories which, when completed in 1913, was the finest facility of its type. There Harrison used tissue-culture techniques in his research on the amphibian embryo and served as “Chief” and mentor to generations of students and followers who credited him with initiating the modern analysis of vertebrate development.

Twice Harrison was seriously considered for the Nobel Prize. In 1917 the Nobel committee recommended him for science’s greatest honor, but due to the World War, a prize was not awarded in his field. In 1933 he was one of two finalists, but because the full value of tissue culture was not yet appreciated, the Nobel went to geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan.

After retiring in 1938 as Sterling Professor of Biology, Harrison headed the National Research Council, transforming it during World War II into a strong force for the development of modern medical science. In that position, he helped bring together American chemists and the British discoverers of penicillin to dramatically speed up production of the antibiotic.

One of the most important uses of Harrison’s methodology was initiated by John F. Enders, who found a way to grow poliomyelitis virus in tissue culture. In 1954, when Enders and his assistants received the Nobel for discoveries leading to the polio vaccine, Harrison rejoiced that his 1907 observation had led to this success.

At Yale, the scientist is remembered through a professorship established in his honor in 1947; Mark Mooseker is currently the Ross Granville Harrison Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology.

After Harrison’s death in 1959, professor John S. Nicholas wrote in tribute: “It is seldom that one man can attain such true greatness. His contribution to biological thought is equivalent to that of Einstein or Planck in other branches of science.”  the end


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