Horatio B. Williams

Biography

Born: September 17, 1877
Died: November 1, 1955

Horatio B. Williams was the first clinical electrophysiologist in America and perhaps its first biomedical engineer. He performed pioneering work on the design of the first electrocardiographs built in the United States.

Williams was born in Utica, New York, in 1877 and attended Syracuse University, where he studied physics as an undergraduate and earned a medical degree in 1905. He moved to New York City for his internship, and practiced medicine at Cornell University Medical School until 1911, when he moved to Columbia University. In 1916, he became an associate professor of physiology at Columbia, and held that title until 1922, when the university elevated him to the rank of Dalton professor and chairman of the Department of Physiology. He held this position until his retirement in 1942.

The first string galvanometers were built in the city of Leyden in the Netherlands in the early 1900s by Willem Einthoven. He used them to produce high fidelity human electrocardiograms. Einthoven collaborated with a German industrialist to create an exportable electrocardiograph. One of these machines was sent to New York, where Williams used it to publish the first ECG recordings in the western hemisphere.

In 1911, Williams travelled to Leyden and London to meet Einthoven and learn how to construct a string galvanometer. He adjusted the original design to improve the magnetic circuit. Williams created a “heart station” at Columbia University in 1912 to monitor patients with this technology and spread interest in the machines to other hospitals.Williams improved on the string galvanometer to make it accessible to patients confined to a bed. He also worked with Alfred Cohn, a physician at New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital, to build a compensator for his string galvanometer so that he could record electrocardiograms.

Williams continued to perform innovative research in physiology in the 1930s. He discovered the vulnerable period,which refers to the short period of time in the ventricular cycle when a single stimulus leads to fibrillation. This concept aided the development of cardiac pacing. Williams also studied the impact of electrocution on the body. He attempted to experiment on people subject to legal execution, but most of his work was performed on animals.

Further Reading

L.A. Geddes and Alvin Wald, "Horatio B. Williams and the First Electrocardiographs Made in the United States," IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology, Sept/Oct 2000, pp. 117-121.