Irritable glue: The Haller-Whytt controversy over the mechanism of muscle contraction

Department of Cell Biology, Center for Research and Advanced Studies CINVESTAV-IPN, Mexico City, Mexico

The ultimate source of animal motion has remained a largely neglected topic in historical accounts of the famous controversy between Albrecht von Haller and Robert Whytt over the phenomenon of irritability. Haller conjectured that the power to actively contract in response to adequate stimuli (i.e., irritability) would most probably reside in a special gluten or glue joining the elementary particles supposed to constitute every minimal muscle fiber. This property would be inherent to such glue, he suggested, just like attraction and gravity are inherent to matter in general.

Hallerís hypothesis was sharply criticized by Whytt, who among other objections pointed out that glue extracted from muscles is totally unresponsive and inert. Instead, Whytt believed that an "active sentient principle" distributed throughout the animal body, and persistent for some time after death, was obviously behind all motions elicited by any stimulus, even in isolated body parts. Whatever difficulty in explaining the exact relation of this "principle" to the muscular substance, he maintained, should be ascribed to mere ignorance about the true nature of the soul.

Whytt and Haller argued back and forth over this issue, never moving towards an agreement. In the absence of other credible explanations for the mechanism of muscle contraction the field seemed to enter a dead end, but not for long. Some of the factors possibly involved in dissipating this intellectual barrier, thus opening the way for a new kind of thinking on muscle physiology, will be discussed.

Session III -- Muscle and Energy
Sunday, 27 June 2004, 11:00 am

Ninth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Montreal, Quebec, Canada