Lawrence J. Henderson (1878–1942)

1. Brief Vita

L.J. Henderson was one of the leading physiologists of the beginning of the 20th century, but also a chemist, a biologist, a philosopher and a sociologist. His biological view of the order of nature as “biocentric“ has fascinated scientists, philosophers, and theologians until today—starting with Whitehead, who claimed in PR 89 that The Fitness of the Environment (1913), The Order of Nature (1917) and Blood. A Study in General Physiology (1928) “are fundamental for any discussion of this subject [the order of nature]” (For his part, Henderson has written a review of Science and the Modern World in the Quarterly Review of Biology (1, 1926, pp. 289-294).

Henderson was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, USA, in 1878. He graduated from Harvard College in 1898 and from Harvard Medical School in 1902. Then followed two years in chemical research at the University of Strasbourg (then Germany) with advanced scientific training in Franz Hofmeister’s physiological laboratory. Henderson became professor of biological chemistry, and later professor of chemistry, at Harvard University. He established the Fatigue Laboratory for physiological and sociological research on fatigue with the support of Harvard Business School and Harvard Medical School.

2. Physiologist

Most important is his work as a physiologist leading to his classical book Blood (1928) with French (1931) and German (1932) editions. Firstly, Henderson investigated the regulation of the constancy of hydrogen ion concentration of blood: the acid-base regulation, and the disturbance of acid-base balance (1906-1920). He found that acid-base balance is regulated by buffer systems of the blood in complex coordination with respiration, the lungs, red blood cells, and with the kidneys.

Secondly, Henderson described blood gas transport and the general physiology of blood as physico-chemical system (1920-1932). The respiratory function of the blood involves the transport of oxygen from the lungs to the tissues, and that of carbon dioxide from the tissues to the lungs. Whereas oxygen is carried almost entirely in the form of oxyhemoglobin in the red cells, carbon dioxide is distributed, largely in the form of bicarbonate, between cells and blood plasma. However, there are very complex inter-relationships within the body. It became evident to Henderson that acid-base regulation, respiration, renal excretion, the circulatory mechanism, and the electrolyte distribution in the body so affect another that they must be considered simultaneously if their roles in the physiology of the organism as a whole were to be visualized (Van Slyke 1926).

Thirdly, Blood showed a syntheses of the complex “general physiology” of the blood. By 1930 the fundamental picture of blood as a highly organized system for transport of the gases involved in respiration was largely complete. In Blood we find “the most comprehensive picture of blood as a physico-chemical system, as it was envisaged in the 1920’s” J. T. Edsall concluded in his historical analysis (Edsall 1985, 1), and the central picture of blood as a functioning system “still stands in its main outlines as a definite achievement.” (Edsall). Especially, Blood described blood as a “milieu intérieur” (internal environment), an idea of Claude Bernard. Henderson was impressed by Bernard’s work and he was named the “champion of Bernard in America” (Parascandola 1971b).

G. E. Allen concluded that the work of Walter B. Cannon and Henderson taken together “represents the most full and influential statement of regulatory, equilibrium concepts in early twentieth-century biology.“ (Allen 1975, 102) Both gave a new direction to physiological work, and by analogy, to other areas of biology, providing a way in which the whole organism could be studied by experimental, quantitative, and mathematical methods (Allen 1975, 102).

3. Biologist and Philosopher

In his classical book The Fitness of the Environment (1913), we find an inquiry into the biological significance of the properties of matter. Henderson realized that the prevailing conception of the relationship between inorganic matter and life was deficient, for it disregarded the contribution of the physico-chemical properties of the internal and external milieu of the organism to biological fitness. Based on extensive data, he developed a theory of the fitness of the environment for life. He tried to answer the fundamental questions: How relevant are the properties of the material universe to biological evolution? (Fry 1996, 160) To what extent are the properties of the inorganic environment favorable to the existence of organisms? (Parascandola 1971b) Are the laws of nature fine-tuned for life on earth? (Mendelsohn et al. 2008, Denton 2005) The Fitness of the Environment was the first research to carry out an extensive comparative analysis of the physical and chemical properties of water, and carbon compounds, especially carbon dioxide, from a biological point of view (Fry 1992).

The Darwinian fitness of the species is compounded of a mutual relationship between the organism and the environment. “Of this”, Henderson concluded, “the fitness of environment is quite as essential a component as the fitness which arises in the process of organic evolution.” (Henderson 1913, 1958, v) The continuous interchange between organism and environment of matter, energy, water, carbonic acid, oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon displays an extraordinary fitness. Henderson concluded:

The properties of matter and the course of cosmic evolution are now seen to be intimately related to the structure of the living being and to its activities; they become, therefore, far more important in biology than has been previously suspected. For the whole evolutionary process, both cosmic and organic, is one, and the biologist may now rightly regard the universe in its very essence as biocentric. (Henderson 1913, 1958, 312)

An analysis of current investigations of the evolution of matter and life underscores Henderson’s contribution to evolutionary theory: his emphasis on the essential role of the “environment” in determining and channeling the emergence and development of life (Fry 1996, 196). His research in biochemistry was instrumental in the establishment of the concept of the living organism as a self-regulating system that maintains dynamic equilibria—jointly with Walter Cannon, J. S. Haldane, Joseph Barcroft, Charles Sherrington and others (Fry 1996, 159).

In The Order of Nature (1917), Henderson analysed and discussed the main aspects of the history of natural philosophy, especially teleology, from the point of view of a natural scientist. In the light of new biochemical discoveries he saw no need for a neo-vitalistic concept, and therefore he created a materialistic (mechanistic) concept of the order of nature arguing from a biochemical point of view. However, the laws of natural science seemed to him teleological. He extended his argument of the fitness of the environment to any evolving physicochemical systems characterized by thermodynamic parameters (Fry 1996, 169). According to Henderson, the “teleological appearance of the world” is “something that is real”; the solar system, the meteorological cycle and the organic cycle give an “impression of harmony which corresponds to an order in nature.” (Cannon 1943, 38). He used the word “teleological” to denote order or harmonious unity and not design or purpose. There were no final causes, no entelechy. According to Henderson the “teleological principle” was inherent in matter and energy, these substances have original principles “essentially not by chance.” (Mendelsohn 2008, 10) Henderson concluded that there must have been a kind of “preparation” before evolution. As a natural scientist and as an agnostic he refused any theological consideration on this issue.

Do the original laws of nature direct the basic phenomena, and can they regarded as a fundamental legislation through which an intelligence governs nature? We learn Henderson’s view from a discussion following his lecture in Paris. “I do not see how it will be possible to know it”, he answered to this question, “I stop at that observation” (Fry 1992, 366-7). Fry concluded “that Henderson has no clear idea whether our notion of teleology reflects a trait of the world or the limitation of our reason of knowledge.” (Fry 1992, 367) But, Henderson says, he believes “very strongly that the universe has always possessed a structure and was never chaotic”(Fry 1992, 367). His concept of the order of nature has been called a “mechanistic teleology” (Fry 1996, Driesch 1922, 156-8). Advances in natural sciences, including Henderson’s fitness theory, have lead scientists to the well-known Anthropic Principle.

4. Sociologist

During the Great Depression, Henderson became a sociologist (1932-1942). He had been introduced into the sociology of Vilfredo Pareto before the sociology department at Harvard was founded in 1930. There exist not only biochemical systems, Henderson concluded, but also social systems that tend to an equilibrium. In his Pareto´s General Sociology (1935), Henderson showed that Pareto’s concept of the generalized social system applied to concrete social systems of all kinds and sizes.

Since the early 1920’s, Wallace B. Donham, Dean of the Harvard Business School, supported Henderson’s work (Cannon 1943, 46). In 1927, Henderson established the Fatigue Laboratory to study physical and mental stress, and he became the first director. The laboratory was at the Harvard Business School and sponsored both physiological and social research. As a physiologist, he took an interest in and influenced the physiological work of David B. Dill; as a social scientist he took an interest in and influenced the social research of Elton Mayo, Fritz J. Roethlisberger, and T. North Whitehead, especially their now famous work at the Hawthorne Plant of the Western Electric Company (Barber 1970a). With the help of Mayo early in 1935 Henderson and Whitehead started to work together, and Henderson invited Whitehead to contribute to his sociology seminars. To the faculty, Mayo’s associates—Henderson, Donham, Roethlisberger, and Whitehead—were a clique dominated by Henderson (Trahair 1984, 295).

The fundamental results of the social research were the classical Hawthorne experiments, revealing a critical role of social action and informal social rules of workers and their organization by informal groups (Gillespie 1991, Trahair 1984). The experiments confirmed Henderson’s systemic view. He considered informal groups as social systems that managers should not ignore (Barber 1970a). Thus, he supported Mayo’s view of the worker as a “social man”, and they published together on this issue, later also together with Whitehead (Henderson et al. 1937, Henderson et al. 2002). Henderson played a more significant role than Mayo in pursuing the relevance of the Hawthorne experiments to sociology (Gillespie 1991, 259).

The Hawthorne experiments lead to the development of a new view of man in industrial psychology and business administration then: the result was the shift from the “economic man” to the “social man” (Ulich 2001). “The association between Henderson, Donham, and Mayo influenced the direction of research at Harvard for the next 20 years. In the eyes of this triumvirate, the multidisciplinary combination of biology, physics, biochemistry, psychology, and sociology provided the ideal conditions for studying industrial society”, concluded E. Yogev (Yogev 2001, 60). Most of Henderson’s sociological articles, including his sociological lecture, were edited as a book with the title On the Social System (1970) by B. Barber.

5. Conclusion

Henderson’s investigations had their inception and consummation in the philosopher’s chair (Talbott 1970). He was fascinated of the stability of complex biological systems of the organism, then of other thermodynamic systems including the cosmos, and finally also of social systems. He developed holistic approaches. His wide range of accomplishments demonstrated his great intellectual capacity and wide range of knowledge making it possible for him to master one field after another (Dill 1977, 14). The younger men whom he helped took prominent places in science, in medical practice and teaching, in research, in history and business, and in social studies (Cannon 1943, 50). In spite of his diversity of interests, Henderson’s work exhibits in retrospect a fundamental unity; his career was largely devoted to the study of the organization of the organism, the universe, and society (Parascandola 1971b, 63). For many authors there is time for a rediscovery of Henderson in science, especially in biology. That should be discussed further (cf. Denton 2005).

Works Cited and Further Readings

Works by Henderson

1913, 1924, 1927, 1958, 1966, 1970, 1987. The Fitness of the Environment (1st edition, New York, Macmillan).

1914. Die Umwelt des Lebens, translated by R. Bernstein. J. F. Bergmann (Wiesbaden).

1917, 1925, 1971, 1977. The Order of Nature (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press)

1924. L’ordre de la nature, translated by E. Renoir (Paris, F. Alcan).

1928. Blood: A Study in General Physiology (New Haven, Yale University Press; London, Oxford University Press).

1931. Le sang, système physico-chimique, translated by C. van Caulaert and A. Roche (Paris, Presses universitaires de France).

1932. Blut. Seine Pathologie und Physiologie, translated by Michael Tennenbaum (Dresden/Leipzig, Theodor Steinkopff).

1935, 1937, 1967. Pareto’s General Sociology (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press).

1970. On the Social System, edited byBernard Barber (Chicago, University of Chicago Press).

1907. “Ueber Stellungsmetrie und Verbrennungswärmen.” Ztschr. phys. Chem. 60, 413.

1908. “Concerning the Relationship Between the Strength of Acids and their Capacity to Preserve Neutrality,” Am. J. Physiol. XXI, 173-79.

1908. “The Theory of Neutrality Regulation in the Animal Organism,” American Journal of Physiology XXI, 427-48,

1909. “Das Gleichgewicht zwischen Basen und Säuren im tierischen Organismus,” Ergebnisse der Physiologie 8, 254-325.

1909-1910. “Zur Kenntnis des Ionengleichgewichts im Organismus” (in part with Karl Spiro), Series, Part I-III, Biochemische Zeitschrift.

1910. “Die physikalischen und chemischen Eigenschaften des Harnes,” in Analyse des Harns. Neubauer-Huppert’s Lehrbuch, 11th edition (Wiesbaden).

1913. “Clinical Studies on Acid Base Equilibrium and the Nature of Acidosis” (with W. W. Palmer), Archives of Internal Medicine 12, 153-70.

1914. “The Functions of an Environment,” Science 39, 524-27.

1914-1915. “The Excretion of Acid in Health and Disease,” The Harvey Lectures 133-153.

1915. “On the Several Factors of Acid Excretion in Nephritis” (with W. W. Palmer), Journal of Biological Chemistry 21, 37-55.

1916. “The Teleology of Inorganic Nature,” Philosophical Review 25, 265-81.

1918. “Mechanism, from the Standpoint of Physical Science,” Philosophical Review 27, 571-76.

1920. “The Equilibrium Between Oxygen and Carbonic Acid in Blood,” Journal of Biological Chemistry XLI, 401-430.

1921. “La Finalité du Milieu Cosmique,” Bul. de la Société Française de Philosophie xvi, 1-29.

1921-1931. “Blood as a Physico-Chemical System” (in part with D. B. Dill, A. V. Bock, J. H. Talbott, H. T. Edwards, C. D. Murray and others), Series, Part I-X, Journal of Biological Chemistry.

1921. “Le Sang—Système Physico-Chimique,” Revue générale des Sciences, numéros des 30 juillet, 15-30 août.

1925. “Physiologie. Sur l’application de la methode nomographique a l’étude des phénomènes dans le sang,” Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Sciences 180, 2066.

1926. “Blood and Circulation from the Standpoint of Physical Chemistry,” in Lectures on Certain Aspects of Biochemistry, edited by H.H. Dale et al. (London, University of London Press), 175-249.

1927. “Blood as a Physicochemical System. V. The Composition and Respiratory Exchanges of Normal Human Blood During Work” (with A. V. Bock, D. B. Dill, L. M. Hurxthal, J. S. Lawrence, T. C. Coolidge, M. E. Dailey), Journal of Biological Chemistry LXXIII, 749-66.

1928. “Studies in Muscular Activity. V. Changes and Adaptions in Running” (with J. H. Talbott, A. Fölling, D. B. Dill, H. T. Edwards, R. E. L. Berggren), Journal of Biological Chemistry LXXVIII, 445-63.

1927. “Introduction,” in Claude Bernard: An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, translated by H. C. Green (New York, Macmillan), v-xii.

1928. “Nomogramme,” in Handbuch der normalen und pathologischen Physiologie, edited by A. Bethe et al. (Berlin, Springer).

1929. “Blood as a Physicochemical System. VIII. Diabetic Coma” (with D. B. Dill, A. V. Bock, J. S. Lawrence, J. H. Talbott), Journal of Biological Chemistry LXXXI, 551-74.

1932. “An Approximate Definition of Fact,” University of California Publications in Philosophy 14, 179-99.

1934. “Science, Logic, and Human Intercourse,” Harvard Business Review, April, 317-27.

1935. “Physician and Patient as a Social System,” New England J. of Medicine 212, 819-23.

1936. “The Practice of Medicine as Applied Sociology,” Trans. Assoc. Amer. Physicians 51, 8-22.

1936. “The Effects of Social Environment” (with Elton Mayo), Journal of Industrial Hygiene and Toxicology 18, 401-416.

1937. “The Effects of Social Environment” (with T. N. Whitehead, E. Mayo), in Papers on the Science of Administration, edited by L. Gulick and L. Urwick (New York, Institute of Public Administration, Columbia University).

1941. “What is Social Progress?” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 73, 457-63.

1971. “Soziales Verhalten als gleichgewichtiges System. Excerpts from Pareto’s General Sociology,” translated by Armin Hebel, in Soziale Systeme. Materialien zur Dokumentation und Kritik soziologischer Ideologie, edited by K. H. Tjaden (Berlin, Luchterhand, Neuwied), 107-114.

2002. “The Effects of Social Environment” (with T. N. Whitehead, E. Mayo), reprinted in Central Currents in Organization Studies. Frameworks and Applications. Volume 1: Historical Perspectives and Emergent Tensions, edited by S. R. Clegg (Sage Publications).

Memories. Unpublished autobiographical manuscript dictated in the period 1936-1939 (Cambridge MA, Harvard University, Baker Archives and Widener Archives).

Works on Henderson

Allen, Garland E. 1975. Life Science in the Twentieth Century. John Wiley & Sons, New York u. a. 1975.

Astrup, Poul 1986. The History of Blood Gases, Acids and Bases. Munksgaard, Copenhagen 1986, Chapter XVII by John Severinghaus (264-95).

Astrup, Poul, Peter Bie, Hans Chr. Engell 1993. Salt and Water in Culture and Medicine. Munksgaard, Copenhagen.

Barber, Bernard (Ed.) 1970. L. J. Henderson on the Social System. Selected Writings. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Barcroft, J. 1942. “Prof. L. J. Henderson”. Nature 149, 374-5.

Barrow, John D., Frank J. Tipler 1986. The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford University Press.

Cannon, W. B. 1943. “Biographical Memoir of Lawrence Joseph Henderson 1878-1942”. Nat. Acad. Sci. 23, 2nd Memoir 31-58, 1943.

Cross, S. J., W. R. Albury 1987. Walter B. Cannon, L. J. Henderson, and the Organic Analogy. Osiris 3. 165-92.

Denton, Michael J. 1998. Nature’s Destiny—How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe. The Free Press, New York.

Denton, Michael J. 2005. Henderson’s “Fine-Tuning Argument“: Time for Rediscovery. In: Charles L. Harper Jr. (Ed.): Spiritual Information—100 Perspectives on Science and Religion. Templeton Foundation Press, Philadelphia and London, 167-71.

Dill, D. B. 1977. “L. J. Henderson, his transition from physical chemist to physiologist; his qualities as a man”. Physiologist 20 (2), 1-15.

Driesch, Hans 1922. Wirklichkeitslehre. Ein metaphysischer Versuch. 2. Ed., Verlag von Emanuel Reinicke, Leipzig.

Edsall, John T. 1971. “Some Personal History and Reflections from the Life of a Biochemist”. Annual Review of Biochemistry 40, 1-28.

Edsall, John T. 1972a. “Blood and Hemoglobin: the Evolution of Functional Adaption in a Biochemical System”. J Hist. Biol. 5, 205-257.

Edsall, John T. 1985. “Carbon dioxide transport in blood: equilibrium between red cells and plasma. The work of D. D. Van Slyke and L. J. Henderson, 1920–1928”. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 7, 105-20.

Fry, Iris 1992. L. J. Henderson’s Theory of the Fitness of the Environment for Life: Historical Aspekts and Current Parallels. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Tel-Aviv Univ.

Fry, Iris 1996. “On the Biological Significance of the Properties of Matter: L. J. Henderson’s Theory of the Fitness of the Environment”. Journal of the History of Biology 29, 155-96.

Gillespie, Richard 1987. “Industrial Fatigue and the Discipline of Physiology”. In: Geison, Gerald L. (Ed.): Physiology in the American Context. American Physiological Society, Bethesda, Maryland, 237-262.

Gillespie, Richard 1991. Manufactering Knowledge. A history of the Hawthorne experiments. Cambridge University Press, Paperback edition.

Hankins, Thomas L. 1999. “Blood, Dirt, and Nomograms—A Particular History of Graphs”. Isis 90, 50-80,

Heyl, Barbara S. 1968. “The Harvard Pareto Circle”. J. History Behavioral Sciences 4, 316-34.

Mendelsohn, Everett 2008. “Locating “Fitness“ and L. J. Henderson”. In: Barrow, John D. et al.: Fitness of the Cosmos for Life—Biochemistry and Fine-Tuning. Cambridge, University Press, 3-19.

Mendelsohn, Everett et al. 2008. Part 1: “The fitness of ’fitness’: Henderson in context”. In: Barrow, John D. , S. C. Morris, S. J. Freeland, C. L. Harper Jr. (Eds.): Fitness of the Cosmos for Life—Biochemistry and Fine-Tuning. Cambridge, University Press, 3-96.

Parascandola, J. 1968. Lawrence J. Henderson and the Concept of Organized Systems. Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin.

Parascandola, J. 1971a. “L. J. Henderson and the Theory of Buffer Action”. Medizin historisches Journal 6, 297-309.

Parascandola, J. 1971b. “Organismic and holistic concepts in the thought of L. J. Henderson”. J. Hist. Biol. Spring; 4, 63-113.

Parascandola, John 1992. “L. J. Henderson and the Mutual Dependence of Variables: From Physical Chemistry to Pareto”. In: Margaret W. Rossiter, Clark A. Elliott (Ed.): Science at Harvard University: Historical Perspective. Lehigh Univ. Press, Bethlehem, Pa., 167-90.

Pitts, Robert F. 1952. “Modern Concepts of Acid-Base Regulation”. Archiv. Int. Med 89, 864-76.

Russett, Cynthia Eagle 1966. The Concept of Equilibrium in American Social Thought. Yale University Press. New Haven und London 1966, 2. Ed.

Talbott, John H. 1970. “Lawrence Joseph Henderson (1878–1942)”. In: Talbott, John H.: A Biographical History of Medicine. Excerpts and Essays on the Men and Their Work. Grune & Stratton, 970-4.

Trahair, Richard C. S. 1984. The Humanist Temper—the life and work of Elton Mayo. Transaction books, New Brunswick (USA), London (UK).

Ulich, Eberhard 2001. Arbeitspsychologie. 5. Ed., Vdf, Zürich, and Schäffer-Poeschel, Stuttgart. See also:

Van Slyke, Donald D. 1926. Factors Affecting the Distribution of Electrolytes, Water, and Gases in the Animal Body. Lectures delivered at Rutgers University. J. B. Lippincott, Philadelphia and London.

Woodyatt, Rollin T. 1948. “Foundations of the conception of acidosis”. Proc. Am. Diabetes Assoc. 8, 17-31.

Yogev, Esther 2001. “Corporate Hand in Academic Glove: The New Management’s Struggle for Academic Recognition—The Case of the Harvard Group in the 1920’s”. American Studies International, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1, 52-71.

Author Information

Rudolf Windeln
Independent scholar
Postfach 180 205, 53032 Bonn, Germany

How to Cite this Article

Windeln, Rudolf, “Lawrence J. Henderson (1878–1942)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.