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papers of wallace osgood fenn


Wallace Osgood Fenn was a member of the Department of Physiology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine & Dentistry from 1924 until 1971. He was chairman of the Department from 1924 until 1959. The author of 267 publications, Dr. Fenn was a physiologist of international stature, known for his pioneer work in muscle metabolism, electrolyte physiology, the physiology of respiration, and space and undersea physiology.

The papers of Wallace Osgood Fenn span the period 1915 to 1971. They include extensive correspondence dating from the early 1920s; materials relating to his involvement in national and international scientific societies; reports from government and military contracts; lecture notes; and an extensive series of laboratory notebooks and other work data. The collection was presented to the Edward G. Miner Library by Mrs. Clara Fenn in 1971. Processing of the collection was completed on August 3, 1988. The collection is contained in fifty-eight document boxes and 114 bound notebooks occupying thirty-six linear feet.

Biographical Data & Sources

Wallace Osgood Fenn was born at Lanesborough, Mass. on August 27, 1893, the descendant of a family that had been settled in New England since the 17th century. His father was William Wallace Fenn, Bussey Professor of Theology at Harvard University, and his mother Faith Huntington Fisher. W.W. Fenn later became Dean of the Harvard Divinity School.
WOF attended the Cambridge Latin School, following which he entered Harvard University with the intention of preparing for the ministry. After attending the biology lectures of W.J.V. Osterhout, WOF decided on a career in physiology. Graduating from Harvard in 1914, WOF's graduate studies were interrupted by service with the U.S. Army Sanitary Corps during the First World War. Upon his discharge in 1919, WOF submitted his thesis and became Instructor in Applied Physiology in the Department of Industrial Hygiene of the Harvard Medical School. It was during this period (1919-21) that WOF engaged in studies of the phagocytosis of solid particles by white blood cells.

In 1922 WOF accepted a Rockefeller Travel Fellowship, and became the first American to work in A.V. Hill's laboratory in London. It was during this period that he made his first recognized contribution to physiology: defining the relationship between the heat production of muscles and the work they perform, a phenomenon subsequently termed the " Fenn Effect" by A.V. Hill. WOF also spent six months with H.H. Dale at the National Institute for Medical Research (London).

In 1924, at the urgings of Simon Flexner and George Hoyt Whipple, WOF accepted the chair of Physiology at the newly formed University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. His initial research in Rochester concentrated on measuring gas exchanges by nerve and by muscle. In 1927, he measured for the first time the amount of oxygen required by a nerve to conduct an impulse. Further studies on muscle metabolism led WOF to consider electrolytes (particularly potassium) in nerve and muscle activity -- studies which ushered in a new era in electrolyte physiology. Continued research during the 1930s made possible the first determinations of potassium, sodium, magnesium and calcium in nerve; and more importantly, showed that during contraction potassium was lost from muscle in exchange for sodium. With the availability of radioactive potassium in the late 1930s, WOF was able to study more closely the kinetics of potassium metabolism and was the first to show the incorporation of potassium into blood cells.

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With the outbreak of the Second World War, WOF switched his research efforts to respiratory physiology and the pressure breathing problems faced by aviators in non-pressurized aircraft. Two important concepts resulted from this work. WOF's studies of respiratory mechanics led to his pressure-volume diagram of the lung and thorax; and his researches into pulmonary gas exchange resulted in the oxygen-carbon dioxide diagram of the composition of alveolar gas.

In the mid-1950s WOF extended these interests to the physiology of breathing in two new human environments: outer space and the depths of the sea. Particularly important were his work on the toxicity of oxygen at high pressures and his investigations of the effects of hydraulic pressure on biological reactions (which he termed "barophysiology").

Dr. Fenn was active in numerous national and international scientific societies, his involvement in which is reflected in the collection. As a member of the American Physiological Society (Boxes 4-10), WOF served as a member of the Board of Publication Trustees (1935-49), Treasurer (1936-40), Secretary (1942-46), and President (1946-48). He also edited the respiratory section of the Society's Handbook of Physiology (1964-5). In his association with the International Union of Physiological Sciences (Boxes 21- 23), WOF was Chairman of the U.S. National Committee (1956-60), Secretary General (1959-65), and President (1968-71). He served in various capacities with the National Academy of Sciences after his election in 1943 (Boxes 26-29), and was one of the organizing members of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (Boxes 2-3), of which he was President in 1956-57.

At the University of Rochester , WOF was Chairman of the Department of Physiology for thirty-five years (1924-59), was Assistant Dean to George Hoyt Whipple (1949-53), and Director of the University's Space Science Center (1962-66). Dr. Fenn was named Distinguished University Professor of Physiology in 1961.

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Among his major awards were the John F. Lewis Prize of the American Philosophical Society (1949), the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Award of the International Academy of Astronautics (1964), the Antonio Feltrinelli Prize of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei (1964), the Research Achievement Award of the American Heart Association (1967), and the Johannes Muller Medallion of the German Physiological Society. He also received honorary degrees from the Universidad de San Marcos, Lima (1959), the Universite de Paris (1960), and the Universite libre de Bruxelles (1965); and was elected to honorary memberships in the Sociedad Argentina de Biologia (1951), the Societa Italiana di Biologia Sperimentale (1963), the Canadian Physiological Society (1965), the Physiological Society of Great Britain (1965), the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei (1965), and the Academie Royale de Medecine de Belgique (1970).

Wallace Osgood Fenn married Clara Bryce Comstock in September 1919. They had four children: William Wallace, Ruth, Priscilla, and David Bryce. Dr. Fenn died in Rochester, New York on September 20, 1971.

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The Papers

The Papers of Wallace Osgood Fenn are organized into six distinct series, which correspond to the arrangement of Dr. Fenn's own files:

General File (Boxes 1-39)

  • The largest of the these series is the General File, which largely maintains the original organization of Dr. Fenn's correspondence with individuals, scientific societies, universities, and other organizations (including journals). Materials are arranged alphabetically by name of correspondent or organization.

Government & Military Contract reports (Boxes 40-41)

  • This brief series contains written reports for the various government and military contracts (OEM, Army, Navy, Air Force) in which Dr. Fenn and his associates were involved between 1942 and 1958. Most of the contracts involved research on pressure breathing and oxygen toxicity.

Laboratory Notebooks and Work Data, 1915-27 (Boxes 42-44)

  • The notebooks and work data in this series represent WOF's research from the time of his graduate studies at Harvard through his arrival in Rochester. They include notebooks from graduate work at Woods Hole and Harvard from 1915 to 1917; his work on phagocytosis prior to leaving for England (1919-21); research notes from his years on a Rockefeller Travel Fellowship at the Physiology Laboratory of the University of Manchester and University College's Institute of Physiology; and early work at the University of Rochester. Laboratory Notebooks, 1926-1970 These pasteboard-covered notebooks provide a chronological record of the activities of Dr. Fenn's laboratory from 1926 until 1970. There were originally one hundred and sixteen numbered notebooks. Two are now missing (#s 112 & 114).

Work Data, 1926-1971 (Boxes 45-52)

  • The material in this series supplements the LABORATORY NOTESBOOKS, 1926-1970. Also arranged chronologically, the work data series includes original data summarized in the laboratory notebooks, as well as data summarized from the laboratory notebooks.

Lectures Notes (Boxes 53-58)

  • This series includes notes for lectures delivered by WOF at the School of Medicine and elsewhere. The series is arranged alphabetically by subject, as it was in Dr. Fenn's original files. The subject matter of much of this material will be of use in supplementing the laboratory notes and work data of the previous two series. It includes many lectures on muscle physiology, nerves, potassium, and respiration.

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