John Carew Eccles Biography (1903-1997)


In 1962, John Carew Eccles was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, an award he shared with Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley for their research in the mechanisms of control and communication between nervecells.

Born in Melbourne on January 27, 1903, Eccles received his early education from his parents, both of whom were teachers. As a medical student at MelbourneUniversity, he won first-class honors and was also known as an a widely talented athlete in tennis, pole vaulting and cross-country running. Eccles' combined athletic and academic abilities won him a Rhodes Scholarship when he graduated in 1925, allowing him to study under Charles Scott Sherringtonat Magdalen College, Oxford. There, he became one of Sherrington's research assistants and coauthored eight scientific papers with his superior. His Ph.D.thesis, accepted in 1929, dealt with excitation and inhibition in nerve cells. After receiving his doctorate, Eccles spent 1932-1934 at Exeter College, Oxford.

In 1937 he returned to Australia to head the Kanematsu Memorial Institute ofPathology, a small medical research facility at Sydney Hospital. From 1941-1943, Eccles was a medical adviser for the Australian Army, in charge of collecting and processing blood serum and also working on military issues related to aviation medicine, vision, and hearing. In 1944, he became professor of physiology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. In 1952, Eccles moved again, this time to the Australian National University in Canberra.

Compelled by the University of Canberra policy to retire in 1966, Eccles moved to the United States, where he headed the Institute for Biomedical Researchin Evansville, Illinois. In 1968, he switched to State University of New York in Buffalo, where he spent the remainder of his career.

It was at Oxford that Eccles began applying new methods of electrophysiology,which involves the use of electronic amplifiers and cathode-ray oscilloscopes, to study the brief electrical impulses in nerve fibers.

Based on Huxley and Hodgkin's studies on giant squid nerve cells, Eccles demonstrated the ionic mechanisms involved in excitation and inhibition in the peripheral and central portions of the nerve cell membrane. At the time, therewas considerable difference of opinion about whether transmission between nerve cells was primarily chemical or electrical in nature. Eccles argued for electrical transmission, although chemical transmission was eventually proven to predominate. His research nonetheless advanced medical knowledge of nervousdisorders, heart and kidney disease, and brain function.

Eccles' published books include The Physiology of Nerve Cells (1957),The Physiology of Synapses (1964), The Understanding of the Brain (1973), and The Human Psyche (1980).

In addition to his scientific interests in the brain, Eccles developed a broader philosophy of the human person, arguing that the mind and brain are distinct and that consciousness consists of more than just nerve impulses.

Among many awards recognizing his research, Eccles held a few distinguished appointments. He became a knight of the British Empire in 1958. Eccles was president of the Australian Academy of Sciences from 1957 to 1961. He later diedin 1997.

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