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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 44.1 (2001) 76-86

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Sir John Eccles, 1903-1997: Part 1. Onto the demonstration of the chemical nature of transmission in the CNS

Alexander G. Karczmar *


Sir John C. Eccles' long life covered almost all of the 20th century; most of it was devoted to experiments and philosophical writings. This article is divided into two parts: the first describes Eccles' life and his early scientific contributions extending through his demonstration of chemical transmission in the central nervous system, a proof that earned him the Nobel Prize; the second concerns his subsequent research concerning mostly the cerebellum, and his philosophy (Karczmar 2001).

A Short Life Story

IMAGE LINK= Sir John was born on 27 January 1903, in Melbourne, Australia. He graduated from Melbourne University in 1925 with bachelor's degrees in science and medicine. He received first-place academic honors in medicine and won a Rhodes scholarship for Oxford University. At Oxford, he was a Fellow first at Exeter College and then Magdalen College. At Oxford, Eccles became a student [End Page 76] of Sir Charles Sherrington (Fig. 1). Sherrington was a preeminent investigator of the central nervous system, a Renaissance man, and a published poet. As a neuroscientist, he emphasized the integrative functions of the CNS; he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1932. Sherrington was a wonderful mentor: four of his pupils were Nobel Prize winners. He greatly influenced Eccles' scientific and philosophical work, as emphasized in Sherrington's biography, written by Eccles and William Gibson, another student of Sherrington, some 45 years after their Oxford days; in this biography Sherrington is referred to as a "giant" and "a great spirit" (Eccles and Gibson 1979). In the course of his eight years in Sherrington's laboratory, Eccles was associated with such great researchers of the future as Ragnar Granit, Derek Denny-Brown, John Fulton, Lord Adrian, and Sir Henry Dale.

Eccles earned the MA and PhD degrees at Oxford (1927 and 1929, respectively) and taught there until 1938. While in Oxford he married Irene Francis Miller, with whom he had five daughters and four sons; one of his daughters, Rosamond Eccles, is a prominent neuroscientist. In 1937, Eccles returned to Australia as director of the Sidney's Kanematsu Memorial Institute of Pathology, "a small research institute" (Eccles 1973). Between 1944 and 1951 he served as professor of physiology at the University of Otago Medical School in New Zealand. While he was at Otago, Eccles invited the mathematician and philosopher Karl Popper to present a series of lectures on the [End Page 77] philosophy of science, a visit that influenced Eccles greatly. In 1952, Eccles moved to the John Curtin School of Medical Research of the Australian National University in Canberra, where he remained for 14 years. He was also associated with the Institute of Advanced Studies of the Australian National University. There, he carried out the research that led to his 1963 Nobel Prize. In Canberra, Eccles assembled an outstanding team of researchers and collaborators; during his time there, over 70 young scientists from 22 different countries and over 400 scientific papers and three books were published (Eccles 1973). Also while in Canberra, Eccles initiated his long series of publications in the area of mind-brain relationship.

The Nobel Prize did not stop the Australian Civil Service from insisting on Eccles' retirement at the then mandatory retirement age of 65 (Eccles, personal communication); so, Eccles preempted the threat by becoming in 1966 the head of the American Medical Association's Institute for Biological Research in Chicago. A local paper announced that "Eccles does not wash to be retired"; this statement was quoted in the misprints column of the New Yorker with the comment: "Dirty old man!" The story may appear to be irreverent, but Sir John enjoyed it. Eccles recruited many able scientists for his AMA laboratory, including the Czech neuroscientist Helena Tabarikova whom he married following his divorce from his first wife. In Chicago, Eccles' work yielded a...


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