Joseph Erlanger Biography (1874-1965)


Joseph Erlanger was an American physiologist whose pioneering work with his collaborator, Herbert Spencer Gasser, helped to advance the field of neurophysiology. For their work on "the highly differentiated functions of single nerve fibers" Erlanger and Gasser shared the 1944 Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology. The awarding of the Nobel Prize to Erlanger and Gasser also recognized their roles in developing the most basic tool in modern neurophysiology: the amplifier with cathode-ray oscilloscope. The prize culminated for Erlangera distinguished career in medical education and physiological research.

Erlanger was born on January 5, 1874 in San Francisco, California, the sixthof seven children, to Herman Erlanger and Sarah Galinger, both immigrants from Southern Germany.

In 1889, Joseph Erlanger entered the classical Latin curriculum at the San Francisco Boys' High School. After graduating in 1891, he began studies in theCollege of Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, receiving abachelor's degree in 1895. At Berkeley Erlanger performed his first research--studying the development of newt eggs. He then enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore and earned a medical degree in 1899, graduating second in his class. This distinction allowed Erlanger to work as an intern in internal medicine for William Osler, the renowned physicianand teacher.

In Baltimore, in the summer of 1896, he worked in the histology laboratory ofLewellys Barker, studying the location of horn cells in the spinal cord of rabbits; the following summer, he undertook a project to study the digestive process of dogs. This study led to Erlanger's first published paper in 1901, and to his appointment as assistant professor of physiology at Johns Hopkins by William H. Howell, one of America's most important physiologists and head of the department. He was later promoted to associate professor of physiology.

In 1904, at Johns Hopkins, Erlanger designed and constructed a sphygmomanometer--a device that measures blood pressure. Erlanger improved on previous designs by making it sturdier and easier to use. Later that year, he used the device to find a correlation between blood pressure and orthostatic albuminuria,wherein proteins appear in the urine when a patient stands. His last few years at Johns Hopkins were spent studying electrical conduction in the heart, particularly the activity between the auricles and the ventricles that is responsible for the consistent beating of the heart. Using a clamp of his own design, he was able to determine that a conduction blockage, or heart block, inthe bundle of His, a connection between the auricles and ventricles, was responsible for the reduced pulse and fainting spells associated with Stokes-Adams syndrome.

In 1906, Erlanger left Johns Hopkins and moved to the University of Wisconsin, where he became the first professor of physiology at the university's medical school. The following year Erlanger left Wisconsin for the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he worked for the remainder ofhis career, serving as professor of physiology and department chairman.

In 1917, the United States' entry into World War I presented him with the opportunity to return to the laboratory and to his research on cardiovascular physiology. He participated with other physiologists in the study of wound shock and helped to develop therapeutic solutions that were used by the U.S.Armyin Europe. He also continued the work that he had begun at Johns Hopkins, studying the sounds of Korotkoff, the sound one hears in an artery when measuring blood pressure with a stethoscope.

In the early 1920s, Erlanger turned to neurophysiology. The arrival at Washington University of Herbert Spencer Gasser, a student of Erlanger's from Wisconsin and a fellow Johns Hopkins graduate, spurred this change. Erlanger and Gasser would collaborate at Washington University until Gasser's departure in1931 for the Cornell Medical College. Understanding how nerves transmit electrical impulses preoccupied Erlanger and Gasser during the 1920s. The difficulty in studying nerves was that the electrical impulses were too weak and toobrief to measure them accurately. In 1920, one of Gasser's former classmates,H. Sidney Newcomer, developed a device that would amplify nerve impulses bysome 100,000 times, allowing physiologists to measure and study the subtle changes that occur during nerve transmission. A year later, Erlanger and Gasser, based on advances made at the Western Electric Company, constructed a cathode-ray oscilloscope that could record the nerve impulse. The cathode-ray oscilloscope with amplifier was a technological breakthrough that permitted neurophysiologists to overcome the barrier posed by the subtlety and brevity of nerve activity. Erlanger and Gasser went on to study the details of nerve transmission. Their most significant contribution derived from these researches was their conclusion that larger nerve fibers conducted electrical impulses faster than smaller ones. Also, they demonstrated that different nerve fibers can have different functions.

Erlanger's wholly American education, consisting of a full-time research effort, represented a new generation of American physiologists. For his scientific efforts, Erlanger was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences,the Association of American Physicians, the American Philosophical Society,and the American Physiological Society. He also received honorary degrees from universities of California, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Johns Hopkins University, Washington University, and the Free University of Brussels.His highest honor came when he shared, with Gasser, the 1944 Nobel Prize forphysiology or medicine. After his retirement in 1946, Erlanger continued towork part-time performing research and helping graduate students in their work. Erlanger died of heart failure on December 5, 1965, one month before his 92nd birthday.

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