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Carlson at Elk Lake

Carlson made frequent fishing trips to Elk Lake, Michigan, where he and his friends founded a summer colony.


Cover of Time Magazine

Time, February 10, 1941.

Lauding "the most colorful figure among U.S. scientists," Time devoted a cover story to Carlson's success as a teacher and his comparative studies of the muscular action of the heart in humans and the horseshoe crab.


Anton J. Carlson | Physiology

Students at the University of Chicago who took physiology courses from Anton J. (Ajax) Carlson learned to expect the unexpected. Not content simply to explain techniques and theories, Carlson insisted that lectures include real-life demonstrations and experiments. Students played a central role in these sometimes difficult and potentially dangerous experiments, and Carlson willingly took his own turn "on the table."

As part of his search for a more complete knowledge of the stomach and the relationship between hunger and digestion, Carlson once fasted for fifteen days with a balloon crammed into his stomach to measure its contractions. His experiment helped disprove one of Pavlov's classic theories by showing that gastric juices flowed regardless of the amount of food in the stomach. Carlson went on to argue that hunger was an independent, nonconditioned response.

Utterly devoted to empirical research, Carlson often reacted passionately to presentations he found insufficiently supported by evidence. His standard question, posed in a thick Swedish accent - "Vot iss de effidence?" was applied to everyone, both inside and outside the scientific world. Carlson's empiricism did not endear him to everyone. While in college studying for the Lutheran ministry, he suggested that the question of the efficacy of the power of prayer could easily be tested. Congregations could be asked to pray for rain and the results of their efforts could then be compared with the Weather Bureau's rainfall records. This philosophy won him little support within the church and prompted his shift from theological studies to the natural sciences.

As a faculty member, Carlson defended empirical research and opposed what he considered the Neo-Thomist views of President Robert M. Hutchins. Carlson once remarked that if Hutchins had lived three hundred years earlier, he would have been a monk in a monastery.

A. J. Carlson combined sound scholarship with a sense of the dramatic and a flair for knowing how to capture the attention of an audience. Carlson not only taught well within the classroom, but also recognized student talent and knew how to cultivate it. Franklin McLean recalled how as a student, he had collaborated with Carlson on an experiment. When the published results appeared, Carlson had McLean listed as the sole author, a generous gesture that McLean never forgot. His crusty personality, blunt approach, and willingness to entertain made Carlson well known, but they did not overshadow his many contributions to science and medicine.

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