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Henry Sewall & the Department of Physiology

Henry Sewall
The Michigan Alumnus 238-246


Henry Sewall and the History of the 
Department of Physiology at the Univer
sity of Michigan from 1850 to 1892. An
 Address to the Students' Medical Society, 
 Founders' Day, February 22, 1909, by War
ren P. Lombard, A.B., M.D.

This is the ninth time that the students and Faculty of this department have met together on Founders’ Day. We meet to freshen our memories of the past history of our school; we meet to recall the great services rendered by its founders to the cause of medicine; we meet as men and women who are deeply interested in the same grand ideal, the advancement of medical sci
ence and of the scientific practice of 
medicine. The Medical Department of
 the University of Michigan has al
ways stood for this ideal. The Faculty has always devoted their best ef
forts to raising the standard of teach
ing in this school, so that it should be, 
 not merely in the first rank, but should
 lead in medical education. The school 
has always contained some of the 
the success of the graduates, has
 shown that the students of this school 
have been nowhere surpassed. The 
students have recognized this, and 
have not only been proud of the school 
when here, but have been faithful, 
 helpful sons and daughters after they 
have left us. Nor has it been alone 
through the work of the Faculty as
 teachers and the students as pupils, 
 that the school has acquired an inter
national reputation, but perhaps, even 
more through the constant endeavor of 
the Faculty and the most advanced
 students to add to medical knowledge. 
 These statements are made in no vain
 glorious spirit. We are here in a fam
ily circle tonight, and can speak
 more freely than we could outside. It
 does no harm for us to recognize the 
full worth of the school, for it will 
inspire, and compel each of us, teach
er and student to show that we are
 worthy of our heritage. The name and
 fame of this school must be main
tained. We owe it to the noble men
 and women who have toiled here in 
the past; we owe it to those who are 
to follow us. The health and strength 
not only of living men, but of future
 generations depends on the advance 
of medicine. This school has worked 
in the past, is working now and we
 earnestly believe will work in the fu
ture, to send out to the world, a body 
of men trained in medical lore, trained 
to independence of thought and judg
ment, fitted to give to mankind the best 
aid that medical practice can offer to-
day, capable of adding to medical 
knowledge and of utilizing every med
ical discovery of the future for the 
benefit of society. 

When a man begins the study of 
medicine, he rarely recognizes the full
 significance of the task upon which he 
has entered. The true meaning of the
 work is lost sight of, when we are in 
the midst of it. Like the country boy
 who said he could not see the city be
cause of the houses, so we cannot ap
preciate the grandure of medicine be-
cause we are too near its details. It
 is good that at least one day in the year 
we should draw aside from our work 
and see it, as it were, from a distance. 
It is good too that we, faculty and
 students, should escape from the red
 tape of the class room, and recog
nize our fellowship in medicine; recog
nize that we are all human beings, and
 not ogres and their victims; recognize 
that many who now sit looking from 
the benches at the Professor, will, in a
 few short years, stand beside him and 
become his helper, and in many things 
his teacher; recognize that we all have 
in our school, its past, its present, and 
its aspirations, a common source of 
pride, and that because we are all
 members of such a school, we are 
bound together by almost a sacred tie.

What has been the past of this De
partment, has been related in many of 
its details at previous meetings of this 
society, when the lives of many of the 
members of the first Faculty, rightly 
called the Founders of the Department, 
 were ably portrayed. When it fell to
 my lot to try to picture something
 of the past history of our school. I
 decided to present a sketch of the his
tory of the Physiological Department. 
 About twenty-five years ago there was 
called to the Faculty a young man, 
named Henry Sewall. He was a man
 of great force of character, admirably 
trained in physiology, with the highest
 scientific ideals, and what is more un
usual, with a rare capacity for original 
thought. His work as teacher and in
vestigator gave life to the department, 
under his direction it sprang to the
foremost rank, being surpassed by 
none in the country. I have chosen
 as the subject of my address, "Henry
 Sewall, and the History of the De
partment of Physiology at the Univer
sity of Michigan from 1850 to 1892."

The University of Michigan had its 
birth in the act of incorporation of 
1837. The act contemplated three de
partments. Literature Science and
 Arts, Law and Medicine. It was thir
teen years, however, before the Medi
cal School was started. The Eastern
 portion of Old Medical Building, 
 which has always been the home of the
 Physiological Department, was built at 
a cost of $9,000 in 1849, and on the
 15th of May, 1850, the first faculty 
organized, and on the first Monday of 
October the School was formally opened. 

The Original Faculty consisted of
 Abram Sager, Silas H. Douglas, 
 Moses Gunn, Samuel Denton, and Jon
athan Adams Allen. Edmund And
rews was demonstrator of Anatomy. 
 It was through the efforts of Dr. Zina
 Pitcher then a Regent that the School
 was brought into existence. He was 
later made Emeritus Professor of the 
Institutes of Medicine and Obstetrics. 

Those of you who are interested in 
the early history of your school, can 
find interesting reading in the history
 of the department written by Dr. Hu
ber, in the History of the University 
of Michigan, and in the admirable ad
dresses which have been delivered be
fore this organization upon the lives 
of Douglass, Sager, Armor, Frothingham, Dunster, Gunn, Pitcher. 

There is one member of the remark-
able group of men composing the first 
Faculty, concerning whom no report 
has been given. I refer to Dr. Allen, 
 and as he was the first to give instruc
tion in Physiology at this school, I 
should like to let you know something
 concerning him. 

Jonathan Adams Allen was born in
 Middlebury, Vermont, Jan. 16th, 1825, being a direct descendent of Ethan
 Allen, of Revolutionary fame. He 
took his A. B. degree at Middlebury 
College, in 1845, and the degree of
 Doctor of Medicine at Cassleton Medical College, Vermont, in 1846. After
 graduating he came West and settled
 at Kalamazoo, Michigan. Only two
 years later we find him, at the age of
23, a Professor in the Medical College
 at La Porte, Indiana. In 1850 he be
came a member of the first Medical 
Faculty of this University, having the 
title, Professor of Therapeutics, Ma
teria Medica and Physiology, a chair 
which it was possible for one man to
 fill in those days, but which only a very
 rare man could fill with credit today. 
 He remained on this Faculty only four
 years, till 1854, when he resigned and 
probably returned to practice in Kala
mazoo. He was evidently a prominent
 and respected physician, because he 
was the President of the Michigan
 State Medical Society in 1859. That 
same year he was made Professor of 
the Principles and Practice of Medi
cine at Rush Medical College in Chi
cago. Later he became President of 
the College, and received the LL.D.
 degree. He was editor for a number 
of years of the Chicago Medical Jour
nal. He died August 15th, 1890. 

Allen was evidently a man of great 
medical learning and a versatile lecturer. The character of his printed ad
dresses show that he must have read
 extensively outside the field of medical 
literature. He probably owned a good 
library, if we may draw the inference 
from the following story told by him. 
 "Wishing myself to look up a medical
 subject, I visited the residence of one
 of the best known practitioners of the 
locality, and in his absence requested 
permission to visit his library. 'Oh 
no,' said the young lady who answered
 my rap at the door, 'Sit down here, 
 and I will bring it down to you."
 Which she did—Wistar's Anatomy, 
 Bell's Surgery, Eberle's Practice and 
Paris' Pharmacopea. And my friend
 was accounted a marvel of professional learning, much in demand as a pre
ceptor." Allen was without doubt fre
quently called upon to give public ad
dresses. There are six of these in the 
catalogue of the Surgeon Generals' Li
brary in Washington, and we have at
 least six in our own library. The
 address that he gave at the opening
 of the third session of this Depart
ment was good enough to demand a
 second edition. Apparently his most 
important book was on "Medical Ex
aminations for Life Insurance." This
 ran through no less than five editions. 

The address that Dr. Allen gave in
1859 at the opening of the 7th. Meeting 
of the Michigan Medical Society in
 Lansing, shows that he was an advanc
ed thinker, and in many respects ahead 
of his time. In this address he laid
 especial emphasis on the need of accurate registration of births, deaths, and 
the cause of death. The address made
 sufficient impression for the Society to 
adopt the following resolution: "That 
Dr. Allen be hereby appointed the 
Chairman of a committee to carry out, 
 under the auspices of the Society, the 
views advanced in the President's ad
dress relative to the collection of stat
istics and observations upon epidemics 
and endemics." Thus Dr. Allen fifty
 years ago called the attention of the 
profession of the State to this import
ant question, one that is not even
 now fully appreciated by the medical
 profession as a whole.

The reading of this address throws 
many lights on the character of this re
markable man. He evidently had a 
keen sense of humor, and could be 
decidedly sarcastic when he chooses. 
For example, he says with reference to
 epidemics: "We need a careful chron
icle of their visits and peculiarities
 from every part of the state. Isolated 
reports are comparatively valueless. What Dr. So and So saw or thought 
he saw; what wonder-working charms 
he carried in his delapidated saddle-
bags; how many he cured, or dismissed to the Superior or nether re
gions, although facts very interesting 
to Dr. So and So and his committee
 of old ladies, are in a scientific point
 of view hardly worth the paper on
 which he communicates them to the 
popular, medical or secular paper, according as he believes or disbelieves 
in the code of ethics."

Allen's views of medical education
 were as advanced as those of the foremost educators of our day. Let me 
quote him. "It is indisputable that a 
great many enter upon this study too 
little mature by years, and less quali
fied by previous instruction. This arises from the notion that the art, and
 a sufficient quantity of the science for practice, can be gained without that
 exact and generous education which
 other learned professions require. And 
this is to a certain extent true. A certain readiness in concocting of pills
 and horrible mixtures, and a certain 
fluency in the use of elongated techni
calities is readily acquired, and the 
neophyte may easily convince a confid
ing community that he is amply quali
fied for the high duties of warding of f
or relieving disease. The daily bread 
is thus procured with facility, and, 
 alas! too often, both physician and pa
tients believe that this is enough—that 
this is all. But this is not our idea of 
the true physician."

Later he says with reference to rais
ing the standard of medical training: 
 "We honestly believe that it would be 
far better for the profession and the 
State, could a high grade of preliminary attainment be insisted upon be
fore matriculation. It is but an act of 
simple justice to say that none are 
more anxious to establish this rule 
than the learned gentlemen of the
 Medical Faculty of Ann Arbor. They 
recognize its importance, but as practical men they also know that its en
forcement would ruin their institution, 
 as it would any other of the kind from
 Maine to Louisiana." He was right, 
 and what he said fifty years ago, holds
 good today. The Faculty of this
School has always been ahead of its 
time in matters of medical education, 
 and has always raised the entrance re
quirements and improved the course
 of training offered to the students in 
the school as fast as it dared. But be
fore the schools can make any great 
advances, the medical profession has 
to be educated to the needs of medical
 education, just as Dr. Allen was then 
trying to educate them, although he
 was no longer a member of this school. 
 You, who will soon be practitioners of 
medicine, must do all you can after
 you have left us, to educate other prac
titioners who have not had your oppor
tunities, and back up the Faculty here 
every chance that you have, in their 
endeavor to advance medical educa
tion. There is no profession more 
noble and there should be no class of 
men in the community more worthy to
 be called learned, than the physician. 
 Strange to say, the public, the ones
 who should be most vitally interested, 
 are always the laggards and are always
 throwing obstacles in the way of advance. Allen refers to this. He says: 
 "The art of Medicine is in some respects like the art of music—there
 are hosts of fiddlers, few thorough art
ists. The popular ear is easier tickled
 by a 'plantation melody' than by the
 divine strains of some oratorio. And 
thus, practically, so far as mere popu
larity is concerned, and success in se-
curing many calls and plentiful dollars, 
 it is about as well to know little as to 
know much about the real pith and
 marrow of a science, in fact a liberal
 degree of ignorance is more likely to
 give that noisy boldness or oracular 
self sufficiency, which especially attract 
the applause of the multitude."

"But this kind of success, according 
to my understanding of the matter, is
 not what this Society seeks to pro
mote. We seek to increase the grand 
total knowledge; to advance the interests of society at large by informing
 the minds of those to whom the pub
lic health is committed. The task is
 a public one, and panders to no private
 success or failure. Among the means 
to be employed there is scarcely any 
one which offers higher opportunities
 for discovery and improvement than 
close, exact, comprehensive—in fine, 
 educated observation at the bedside 
of the patient."

We hear much today about research. Allen says: "We seek to in
crease the grand total of knowledge."
 We teachers of today say that though 
lectures have certain value, a man
 learns best through what he sees and
 does. Allen says: "It is about as diffi
cult to convey to a student by oral 
instruction any definite ideas of partic
ular diseases, as it is to explain colors 
to a blind man or sounds to the deaf." 
"It is the clinic only which is the truly
 substantial part." "The lecture should, 
 as far as possible, be upon the case 
then and there presented." "The care
ful study of a single case is worth 
more to a medical student than the 
memory of most medical volumes; for 
in that single case will be found wrap
ped all the great problems of the sci
ence and the art." He then argues in 
favor of a State hospital, and says: 
"By rendering this Hospital subservi
ent to the clinical department of the 
State Medical College, the patients
 would, while helpless themselves, be
 made to contribute to the general wel
fare, provided that there 'is a soul of 
goodness even in things evil,' and 
'from the nettle, danger, can be
 plucked the flower, safety."
 From the opening of this school
 medical cases had been studied, and
 operations had been performed in the 
lecture room of the Old Medical Build
ing, but there was a great dearth of pa
tients and the school sadly felt the need
 of a hospital. But it was not until
1868 that one of the Professor's
 houses on the North side of the
 campus, where the new Chemistry
 building is being erected, was converted into a hospital, and that which
 Dr. Allen had urged in 1859 and the
medical Society approved was accomp
lished. In 1876 two large pavilions
 were added to this, and in 1891 the
 present hospital on the bluff to the
 North of the campus was built.

Although Dr. Allen was in charge
 of Physiology, I cannot find that the
 word laboratory entered into his ad
dress. He urges, however, the principle, which is back of all laboratory 
work—that the student shall do things 
for himself and not merely hear others
 tell about them. At that time there
 were no physiological laboratories in 
the country, and none thought of.

There were indeed no trained Physi
ologists in America at the time that 
this Medical School opened. Most 
of the Medical schools were private, 
 unendowed institutions, depending on 
the fees of the students. It often 
happened that their treasuries were
 more than lean, and the Faculty put 
their hands into their pockets to make 
up the deficit, hoping to recoup them
selves through the consultation fees
 which their connection with the school 
brought. Of course they could not 
run laboratories, even if such a thing 
had been considered desirable, nor 
even pay men to give their whole time
 to teaching the scientific branches of 
medicine. Physiology was as a rule
 not a popular chair, and it was held
 by some physician, who often knew lit
tle of the subject, and only occupied 
the chair in the hopes that it would
 lead to a better position in the school. 
Of course there were exceptions to 
this rule. Some of the men who held 
these places loved their subject and 
taught it well from the textbook side. 
Probably the best of these men was
 Dalton, who was Professor of Physiology at the College of Physicians and
 Surgeons in New York, but even he 
had no laboratory worthy the name.

Allen was an exceptionally able man, 
 and was undoubtedly regarded in that
 day as an admirable teacher in physi
ology. Dr. Huber in his article on 
the history of this School, in the Med
ical News of New York, 1901, gives 
the following quotation: "The whole 
subject of reflex nervous influence, of
 which excito-motor and exito-secreto
ry action are but constituent parts, 
 was taught as early as 1850 in the University of Michigan, by J. Adams Al
len," "and in his teaching and writings 
are to be found the only explicit and
 comprehensive exposition of the whole
 subject of reflex nervous action that 
has ever fallen under my observa

Allen had been trained as a physician and probably taught Physiology
 from the point of view of the clinician, 
 but he appears to have had a good
 knowledge of the literature of the subject. 

Dr. Breakey (MICHIGAN ALUMNUS, 1901) quotes Dr. Kedsie, the then
 only living graduate of the class of 
1851, as follows: "Then I recall my 
old teachers, —Sager, exact and methodical, most scholarly, but loaded down
 with so much learning as to make 
him hesitate for fear of some compli
cation not discovered. Allen, the elegant and scholarly exponent of the
 facts and poetry of Materia Medi
ca, —"Dr. Breakey further says of
 Allen, that he had a striking presence. 
 He wore a long full beard, and claimed 
that it was a disfigurement to shave, 
 and reflecting on the Creator, who
 gave man his beard as his distinguish
ing glory. He was a popular lectur
er and it was traditional among the 
students that he was the only member 
of the Faculty who could at the shortest notice fill any chair on any subject. 

He was succeeded in 1854 by Abram
 Sager, who had been Professor of
 Botany and Zoology, and was made 
this year Professor of Obstetrics and
 Physiology, Botany and Zoology. The
 following year his title was changed to 
Professor of Obstetrics and Physio
logy, and he had charge of these departments until 1860. From 1860 to
1875, when he resigned, he was Pro
fessor of Obstetrics and Diseases of
 Women and children. It is unneces
sary that I should give an account of 
the life of this able man, for Doctor
 Huber made him the subject of his
 address to this Society in 1902, and
 one can read the complete report in the 
February number of the MICHIGAN
 ALUMNUS of that year. Sager had re
ceived his scientific training at the 
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, at
 Troy, New York, and his Medical
 training at Cassleton Medical College, 
 Vermont. He made many contribu
tions to Botany and Zoology, but apparently published only one piece of 
original work in Physiology, although 
the journals of the time contain a
 number of his translations of physio
logical papers from foreign journals. 
He was evidently well read in the Natural Sciences. It is interesting to note 
that the one physiological article that 
he is known to have published, ap
peared in the Michigan University
 Medical Journal, Vol. I. 1870, showing that he kept up his interest in
 scientific subjects long after he had
 ceased to lecture upon them. The ex
periments reported in this paper were 
upon the respiration of cold and warm 
blooded animals, when caused to inhale
 exciting, indifferent, and directly nox
ious gases. 

Sager was followed by Corydon L.
 Ford, who was appointed Professor of
 Anatomy in 1854, and Professor of
 Anatomy and Physiology in 1860. He
 continued to hold this title until he
re signed in 1894, although he had 
nothing to do with the teaching of
 Physiology during the latter part of 
his life. Ford was an Anatomist, not
 a Physiologist. He would deduce the 
functions of the body from the struct
ure of its dead organs, instead of directly through observation of the re
actions of the living tissues. Like
 every anatomist he realized the import
ance of laboratory work, and the Cata
logue of 1880-1881 announces "Junior 
students will have an opportunity un
der competent instruction to study
 comparative anatomy and physiology
 practically by dissecting various ani
mals. "This may very well have been 
an excellent course. I mention it, 
 not to condemn it, but to show the 
probable status of physiological teach
ing at the time. I had the pleasure
 of being present at the last lecture 
given by Dr. Ford to the students in 
the Upper Lecture Room of the Old 
Medical Building. All of the Facul
ty would have been there had he al
lowed it to be known in advance. He
 was then 81 years old, but he gave a
 great lecture. It was a masterpiece. Ford was without doubt the finest of 
the Old School lecturers on Anatomy 
in this country and probably in the
 world. In those days the cadaver was
 brought into the lecture room, and 
the lecture was largely a demonstra
tion of a dissection. Ford did this to 
perfection. He was a large man, of 
fine presence, dignified in his carriage, 
 graceful in his movements, using a
 fine choice of language, and thorough
ly at home in his subject. I shall 
never forget the ease and grace with 
which he handled forceps and scalpel, 
 and the clearness with which he demonstrated to the students the struct
ure and significance of the part he
 was considering. The following is an 
illustration of the way he brought
 Physiology into his anatomical lect

Using an ox heart, he dissected the 
root of the aorta with the aortic ring 
free from the heart, thus exposing 
the curtains of the aortic valve from 
the heart side. Then he tied a cork, 
through which a tube passed, into the 
peripheral end of the piece of artery, 
 and blew air into the artery, distend
ing it and causing the aortic valve to
 close. One could readily see the valve 
curtains and their method of action. 
 He then slid a finger between the cur
tains, and rapidly withdrew it, when 
one heard the sound caused by the 
snapping together of the valve cur
tains. It was a clever use of dead
material to demonstrate the function 
which it possessed during life.

The value of laboratory training to 
students of science had been early 
recognized in the University, and lab
oratory courses were started as rapid
ly as possible in all departments. This 
was especially true of the Medical Department. Laboratory work in Chem
istry had been offered as an elective
 almost from the opening of the School, 
 and in 1870, practical chemistry be
came a required course. By the way, 
under the modest title of Assistant in 
the Chemical Laboratory, there ap
pears in the catalogue of 1875-1876 a name with which you are all familiar; 
—Victor C. Vaughan. In 1877, the old 
course in physiological chemistry was
 extended. The catalogue states—"By 
action of the Faculty of the College
 of Medicine and Surgery, two extended optional courses have been estab
lished, one in physiological and pathological chemistry and another in toxi
cology." These courses were distinctly 
chemical in character, covering an analysis of the principal solids and 
fluids of the body in normal and dis
eased conditions. Up to this time, just 
as in the case of the Physiology 
taught by the anatomist, so the Physiology taught by the chemist was large
ly a question of structure rather than
 of action. 

But this year the catalogue states: 
 "By a recent act of the legislature of 
Michigan a liberal appropriation for 
the equipment and conducting of the 
Physiological Laboratory has been
 made ($3.500 was voted by the legis
lature), and a stereoptican, sphygmo-
graph, and numerous other instruments for extended practical work 
have been procured and are in daily
 use. By the cooperation of the Professors of Anatomy, Physiology and
 Pathology, and under proper efficient
 direction and with ample assistance, 
the students in the College of Medi
cine and Surgery, without additional 
charge, will have opportunities of 
practical instruction in experimental
 Physiology, in Histology, both physiological and pathological; and this
 supplemented by instruction in Patho
logical Anatomy and Medical Chem
istry, is designed to afford facilities 
for minute and specific scientific study 
and research exceedingly rare in this
 country, want of which is deeply felt 
by all advanced medical practitioners."
 Sanderson's Handbook for the Physi
ological Laboratory is among the 
books of reference recommended this

It would seem as if at last Physiology was really on its feet, but as
 a matter of fact there was no one on 
the field who was properly qualified 
to teach it. Ford though carrying the
 title of Professor of Anatomy and 
Physiology, was not a Physiologist in 
any sense of the word. Charles H. 
 Stowell, M. D., who was appointed this
 year Instructor in the Physiological 
Laboratory, and was made Assistant 
Professor of Physiology and Histolo
gy, 1881, was a graduate from this 
school, who had been in general prac
tice for the five years preceeding his
 appointment here. His scientific inter
est was wholly along histological lines, 
as his writings show.

How was Physiology taught at this
 time? Students were required to take 
two courses, of 40 lectures each. 
 Nothing is said concerning laboratory
 work in Physiology, but we see in the 
announcement that Histology with the 
practical use of the microscope, mount
ing, etc., will be taught 15 afternoons 
in the physiological laboratory. How
 the "Stereoptican, sphygmograph and
 numerous other instruments for ex
tending practical work" were employ
ed does not appear. 
 It may seem strange that no more 
physiological work, as we know it now, was taught at this time, but as a mat
ter of fact it was being taught almost 
nowhere. The study of physiological
 processes by the use of physical instruments was imperfectly developed, and
the apparatus was very expensive and
 only to be had by importing from Eu
rope. There were very few men in this 
country who had ever seen a recording
 drum. There were only two physio
logical laboratories worthy of the name 
in America, one at Harvard and one
 at Johns Hopkins. How did they hap
pen to be there? 

The first man in this country that 
had been trained as a Physiologist was 
Henry P. Bowditch. He had studied
 under the greatest teacher of Physi
ology that the world has seen, Carl
 Ludwig, Professor of Physiology at 
Leipsig, Germany. Men from 
all eagerly sought Ludwig’s labora
tory over the world that wished to spec
ialize in Physiology, and many are
 the physiological facts, which were 
brought to light under his guidance. The ordinary medical student did no 
work in the laboratory, although they 
attended Ludwig's lectures, and these
 were richly illustrated by demonstrations. 

Bowditch came home in 1871, and 
was appointed Assistant Professor of
 Physiology at Harvard. He was full
 of Ludwig's ideas. Any man who 
wished to do original work in Physi
ology was welcome to his modest lab
oratory, and medical students were 
encouraged to do little pieces of research work. His lectures were illus
trated by experiments, and demon
strations were given in the laboratory, 
but there was no regular laboratory
 course in Physiology for students for
 many years. In 1891 a demonstration course was offered, and in 1892 
laboratory work in Physiology became
 required. It was largely because this
 course was to be established, that Professor Howell was called from Michi
gan to the Harvard Medical School
 that year.