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The Date of the Introduction of the Term “Metabolic”


THE concept and the term “metabolism” have played such a prominent part in the development of physiological science that it should be interesting to know by whom, and when, the term was first used. Prof. Bayliss, in his “Principles of General Physiology” (1915, P. 263), says that, so far as he can discover, “metabolism” was first used by Sir Michael Foster in his a “Text-book of Physiology,” the first edition of which was published in 1883. It seems, however, that there is a still earlier use of the term in the writings of no less well known an investigator than Theodore Schwann, enunciator of the cell-theory. The passage I allude to occurs in the chapter called “Theory of Cells,” the last in Section III. of Schwann's classic, a “Microscopical Researches into the Accordance in the Structure and Growth of Animals and Plants, by Dr. Th. Schwann, Professor in the University of Louvain,” published in Berlin in 1839. My translation of it is that made in 1847 by Dr. Henry Smith, of London, for the Sydenham Society; it runs thus (p. 193):—“The question, then, as to the fundamental power of organised bodies resolves itself into that of the fundamental powers of the individual cells.”… These phenomena may be arranged in two natural groups: first, those which relate to the combination of molecules to form a cell; secondly, those which result from chemical changes either in the component particles of the cell itself or in the surrounding cytoblastema, and may be called metabolic phenomena (implying that which is liable to occasion or suffer change)”. The italics are in the original. Here, then, so far as I know, is the first use of the term “metabolic,” though undoubtedly not the first occurrence of the conception of chemical changes in living matter. Schwann uses the term “metabolic” exactly in its present-day sense, the phenomena of change, interchanges, of material in and by living matter.

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HARRIS, D. The Date of the Introduction of the Term “Metabolic”. Nature 98, 389–390 (1917).

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