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Starling, Ernest Henry

heart starling’s muscle pancreas

(1866–1927) British physiologist: a pioneer of endocrinology and of modern cardiovascular physiology.

Starling was very much a Londoner and, except for short periods in Germany and during his work for the Royal Army Medical Corps on poison gases in the First World War, his career was spent at University College, London. Much of his best-known work was done with his friend, brother-in-law and co-worker W M Bayliss (1860–1924), who was a professor of physiology in the same college. Their joint work would predictably have gained them a Nobel Prize but for the war; and Starling’s acid public comments on Britain’s leaders largely excluded him from the honours awarded to Bayliss, including a knighthood. In their early work together, they discovered the peristaltic waves of the intestine. Then in 1902 they showed that the pancreas still produces pancreatic digestive juice when food enters the duodenum, even when all the nerves to the pancreas are cut. work had indicated this to be a nerve-controlled process. They concluded that a chemical messenger (they named it secretin) must be carried by the blood from the duodenal wall to the pancreas, stimulating its activity. They found that an extract from the duodenum has this effect; and in 1905 Starling used the word hormone (from the Greek hormeo , to excite) to describe such potent biochemical messengers. They had created the subject of endocrinology, which was later to prove so fruitful. Soon it was realized that one hormone had already been found (adrenalin, by in 1901); another was discovered by in 1914 (thyroxin), and the subject expanded strongly after 1930.

Starling’s other work was largely on the cardiovascular system. Starling’s law of the heart (1918) states that for cardiac muscle (as for voluntary muscle) the energy of contraction is a function of the length of the muscle fibres. So the more the heart is filled during diastole (relaxation) the greater is the following systole (contraction); this allows change in output without change in rate. An impaired heart enlarges to maintain its output, in accord with this law, and the enlargement (detectable by X-radiography) is an indication of heart damage.

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