Henry P. Bowditch was a physician who served as dean of Harvard Medical School from 1883-1893 after years of teaching and working as a scientist. In a 1924 memoir for the National Academy of Science Walter B. Cannon wrote of Henry P. Bowditch,
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In the teaching of physiology Dr. Bowditch's instruction was marked by wide learning, clear discussion of controverted questions, cautious inference when convincing facts were not at hand, and by orderly exposition. His lectures were unusually well illustrated by methods which made lasting impressions. A notable contribution to educational procedure was the sending of students to the original sources for material for physiological theses which were read before the class. The conferences at which these theses were presented and the weekly quizzes which Dr. Bowditch conducted were delightfully informal and conversational. Although welcoming with open mind the introduction of the laboratory method of teaching physiology in the later years of his service as a professor, he warned against too great a reaction from purely didactic methods of instruction "lest useful as well as useless things be swept away," and declared that "a good teacher with a bad method is more effective than a bad teacher with a good method."
Looking back on 27 years of experience he was so impressed by the vast increase of knowledge of medical science and of diagnostic and therapeutic procedures that he urged, in 1898, as president of the American Society of Naturalists, certain reforms in medical education. Again in 1900, as president of the Congress of American Physicians and Surgeons, he returned to the problem presented by the immense mass of information which medical schools are attempting to crowd into students during the four-year course, and in an address on "The Medical School of the Future" ventured certain predictions. Because the future medical school must offer advanced instruction in all subjects, and because this will be more than any student can reasonably learn, an elective system will be adopted. This involves, as he had previously shown, drawing a distinction between essential subjects which every student should know, and desirable subjects which certain students should know, i. e., provision for required and for elective studies. Besides this feature of future medical instruction, greater emphasis on practical experience, concentration of attention on one principal subject at a time, with arrangements for natural sequence of these subjects, and such examinations as will test the student's permanent acquisition of usable medical knowledge, were emphasized as probable characteristics of the way in which the teaching of medicine will develop. Twenty-one years have passed since this address was given. During that time the pressure on the medical student has increased still further, so that the problem discussed by Dr. Bowditch has become more acute than ever, and medical teachers are laboring to seek the relief which he sought. To what degree his suggestions will prove to be wise is not yet clear.
After the resignation, in 1883, of Dr. Calvin Ellis, who had been dean of the school during the years of its transformation into a true university department, Dr. Bowditch was appointed dean and served in that capacity for 10 years (until 1893). During that period important changes were introduced in the medical department. Bacteriology was recognized as a regular study, a novel venture under Bowditch's leadership. The four years' required course was adopted, another forward step which the Harvard Medical School was among the first to take.
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