Muscle microanatomy and its changes during contraction: the legacy of William Bowman (1816–1892)
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Striated muscle fine structure began to be really understood following a comprehensive survey of the matter carried out by William Bowman in the late 1830s. The publications resulting from such a study, the first of which earned for the author a precocious election as Fellow of the Royal Society, are herewith examined in the context of contemporary views on the subject as well as of their subsequent repercussion and current knowledge today. It is shown that not only Bowman succeeded in establishing the true architecture of striated muscle fibres to the extent possible with the most advanced technology available in his day – explaining and eradicating alternative erroneous concepts in the process – but also in correctly describing the basic microstructural changes associated with contraction. In addition, although unrecognized by him or others at the time, his experiments with muscle provided direct evidence for the existence of a selectively permeable cell membrane – in the present meaning of the word – over half a century before its officially accepted discovery. Yet, in spite of these remarkable advances, Bowman arrived at the conclusion that the structure of striated muscle fibres is essentially irrelevant for the mechanism of contraction. Possible reasons behind Bowman’s breakthrough accomplishments as a pioneer of modern muscle research, and his failure to understand their significance for muscle physiology, are discussed.