Edgar Douglas Adrian Biography (1889-1977)


What physical changes occur within an organism's body when it sees, hears, smells, tastes, or feels some outside stimulus? That question has intrigued scientists for at least a century. By the early 1870s, some initial answers to the puzzle had begun to appear. Research showed that an electrical impulse causes heart muscle to contract in an "all-or-nothing" manner. That is, after stimulation, the muscle either responds in a specific manner independent of thestimulus's intensity and frequency or not at all. By the turn of the century, the all-or-nothing response was shown to be characteristic of all smooth muscle. This research also suggested that neurons (nerve cells) might behave similarly to muscle cells.

Confirmation of this view was provided over the next two decades by the workof a number of scientists, particularly by that of Edgar Douglas Adrian. Adrian was born in London, England, on November 30, 1889. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1908 and became a student of the physiologist Keith Lucas(1879-1916). Lucas had already completed some of the most critical research on the effect of electrical stimulation on muscle action.

Using sophisticated techniques of detection and analysis, Adrian was able todiscover a number of facts about nerve transmission. He confirmed, first of all, that neurons, like muscle cells, respond in an all-or-nothing mode. He also showed that the electrical impulse traveling through a neuron does not change if the kind or the strength of the stimulus changes. In addition, he found that some sense organs eventually adapt to a stimulus that is applied steadily, while others do not.

Much of Adrian's research was inspired by or had significant impact on practical medical problems. For example, his early work on muscle and nerve cells was influenced by injuries incurred by soldiers during World War I. His laterresearch on nerve transmission led to the development of the electroencephalogram and the treatment of deafness, paralysis, and other nerve disorders.

Adrian became a lecturer in physiology at Cambridge in 1919 and was promotedto professor in 1937. He left teaching in 1951 to become Master of Trinity College. From 1950 to 1955 he was president of the Royal Society. His two highest honors were creation as a hereditary baron of the realm by Queen ElizabethII (1926- ) in 1955 and his receipt of the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine (shared with Charles Scott Sherrington) in 1932. Adrian died in Londonon August 4, 1977.

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