Horace Willard Davenport, the University professor emeritus who literally wrote the book on the science of the stomach, died last Monday.
A pioneer in gastroenterology, the field of digestive diseases, Davenport died at 92 of complications from pneumonia in his Ann Arbor home, the University reported.
The chair of the Department of Physiology for 22 years, Davenport’s most acclaimed contribution to medicine was his research on the gastric mucosal barrier, which prevents the stomach from digesting itself.
His 1964 research papers and subsequent studies explaining why the stomach does not digest itself earned the gastric physiologist international recognition and revolutionized the field.
History of Medicine Prof. Howard Markell, a colleague of Davenport’s for 25 years, said little was known on the mechanics of the stomach’s acids before Davenport’s ground-breaking research.
“It was so revolutionary, it was clinically and scientifically applicable immediately,” Markell said of the 1964 research, adding that many of today’s current treatments for digestive diseases stemmed from Davenport’s studies.
“Right upon publication, it didn’t just benefit physiologists, but doctors, nurses and patients benefited immediately.”
Davenport’s research also led him to write three best-selling textbooks on acid-base chemistry and the physiology of the digestive tract, from which generations of medical students across the world learned.
Davenport arrived at the University in 1956 as a professor and the new chair of the physiology department after having taught physiology at the University of Utah, Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania.
As much a giant in person as he was in the field of physiology, Davenport stood about 6 feet, 7 inches and spoke with a baritone voice. An opinionated professor who sometimes referenced Shakespeare while explaining medicine to his colleagues, Davenport excelled in his roles as an administrator, researcher and teacher during his time at the University, Markell said. “They would call him the triple threat,” he added.
Allen Lichter, dean of the University’s medical school and a former student of Davenport, remembers him for his outstanding lectures but also for his imposing stature and aristocratic demeanor when he attended his lectures in 1968.
“This was not someone you were going to have a beer with,” he said.
Davenport was also president of the American Physiological Society from 1961 to 1962. John Williams, the current chair of the physiology department and also a former president of the society, said Davenport’s work at the University transformed the department into the well-known institution it is today.
“He had strong opinions and was not afraid to voice them in that regard, but he was always interested in working with and talking with students,” Williams said.
In 1983, Davenport retired from the University after having become the William Beaumont Professor Emeritus of Physiology in 1978. He soon pursued a notable career as a medical historian, chronicling the history of subjects such as physiology and the University’s medical school.
Robert Kelch, University executive vice president of medical affairs, said of Davenport in a statement, “Dr. Davenport was one of my most memorable and effective teachers. His charismatic approach and wealth of knowledge and experience always kept me and my classmates spellbound. I feel a deep sense of loss.”
Davenport is survived by his son, Robertson Davies Davenport, and daughter-in-law, Nancy Wirth, both of whom are faculty members of the University’s medical school.