1919–2003) Physician, Educator, and Scholar
Dr. Arthur C. Guyton spent his career as chair of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. During his five decades there, he became one of the most highly regarded physiologists in the world and authored the widely used Textbook of Medical Physiology, in publication since 1956. He wrote forty other books and more than six hundred articles for scientific publications. His work led to a new understanding of the cardiovascular system and changed the entire field of physiology.
Guyton was born in Oxford in 1919, the son of Dr. Billy S. Guyton and Mary Katherine Smallwood Guyton. Billy Guyton, an ophthalmologist in Oxford, also taught part time at the School of Medicine, at that time located in Oxford, and served as its dean from 1935 to 1944, guiding it through an accreditation crisis that threatened its closure. Kate Guyton was a mathematics teacher who had been a missionary in China before her marriage.
Arthur Guyton graduated from the University of Mississippi with the highest academic average in his class, the Taylor Medal in physics, and the short story award. He went on to Harvard Medical School, where he earned his degree in 1943. He subsequently married Ruth Weigle, the daughter of the dean of the Yale Divinity School and chair of the committee responsible for the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. They ultimately had ten children, all of whom became physicians.
After a year’s internship at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Guyton served in the US Navy for two years at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and at the state’s Camp Detrick. Back in Boston to complete a residency in surgery at Massachusetts General, Guyton contracted polio in 1946. He and Ruth spent months in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he regained the use of some of his paralyzed muscles, though he had residual paralysis in his right lower leg, left upper arm, and both shoulders.
“It was clear,” Guyton wrote, “that I couldn’t be a surgeon as I had planned. But that meant that I could devote myself to the two things that meant the most to me: medical research and raising a family.” The Guytons moved back to Oxford in 1947, and he began teaching physiology and doing research. He was named chair of physiology in 1948 and moved to Jackson in 1955 when the University of Mississippi Medical Center opened and the school expanded to a full four-year curriculum.
In 1956 the first edition of his textbook was published, and he received a presidential citation for devices he designed for those disabled by polio—an electronic wheelchair (though he never used one), a special hoist for moving patients from bed to chair, and an automatic locking and unlocking leg brace. At the same time, he worked to discover the cause of hypertension (high blood pressure). His research found that most of what had been written about the heart, blood flow, blood vessels, and blood pressure control was wrong.
His first major breakthrough was the discovery that cardiac output—the amount of blood pumped by the heart—depended not on the heart but on the demand of tissues for oxygen. This theory significantly advanced the understanding of circulation. He filled in another missing link in the understanding of cardiovascular physiology when he proposed and then proved that the pressure in the fluid between cells is negative, an understanding that was vital to comprehending fluid retention in tissue and congestive heart failure.
Having worked out some of the basic mechanisms of circulation, Guyton turned again to blood pressure. Working with an analog computer and the first computer model of the circulatory system, he found that the only factor that could control blood pressure long term was fluid control by the kidney. This idea flew in the face of prevailing notions but was eventually accepted by the scientific community and has provided the basis for much drug development in the treatment of hypertension.
Guyton received nearly every conceivable prize offered in the field of physiology. Most notably, however, the Royal College of Physicians in London invited him to give the William Harvey Lecture at the 1978 symposium commemorating the four hundredth birthday of Harvey, the scientist who first described the circulation of blood.
Guyton’s research and teaching changed physiology from a science of verbal descriptions to one of quantitative analysis. He brought mathematics and physics into the discipline. He was a pioneer in the use of computers to study body function and taught scientists all over the world computer simulation. Scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration now use a descendant of his original computer model of the cardiovascular system to determine ways to counter the effects of weightlessness on astronauts.
More than two dozen of Guyton’s students went on to become heads of physiology departments around the world, and at least six have served as president of the American Physiological Society. His Textbook of Medical Physiology has been and remains enormously influential. It is now in its thirteenth edition (coauthored by Dr. John Hall, who took over after Guyton’s death) and has been translated into at least a dozen languages. The textbook earned Guyton the 1996 Abraham Flexner Award for Distinguished Service to Medical Education, awarded by the Association of American Medical Colleges. It is used in more medical schools around the world than any other physiology text.
Guyton and his wife died in 2003, the result of injuries sustained in an automobile accident.
- Carol Brinson and Janis Quinn, Arthur C. Guyton: His Life, His Family, His Achievements (1989)
- Arthur C. Guyton, “A Brief History of Cardiovascular Physiology at Mississippi,” unpublished manuscript, Department of Physiology and Biophysics, University of Mississippi Medical Center
- Arthur C. Guyton, interview for the Rowland Medical Library Oral History Project, University of Mississippi Medical Center (16 November 2001)
- Janis Quinn, This Week at UMC (30 November 1996, 22 September 2000)