Walter Rudolf Hess Biography (1881-1973)


Walter Rudolf Hess was born in the Swiss town of Frauenfeld to Clemens and Gertrud (Fischer Saxon) Hess on March 17, 1881. He inherited a strong interestin science from his father, a physics teacher. After finishing high school, Hess began his college career, changing universities frequently and taking every opportunity to travel. He eventually received a medical degree from the University of Zurich in 1905, and took a hospital residency under the famous surgeon Dr. Konrad Brunner.

While working for Brunner, Hess designed an improved blood viscometer (to measure blood's thickness and consistency) and began thinking about research inearnest. He took a second residency in Zurich and specialized in ophthalmology (the physiology and diseases of the eye) under the mistaken impression thatthe discipline would allow him time to continue his circulatory system investigations. He indeed developed a successful ophthalmology practice with a good income, but it took up all of his time. In 1912 Hess gave up his practice and moved to the Institute of Physiology in Zurich. Eventually he was named chair of the Physiology department, and began traveling to conferences and meetings throughout Europe. The stresses inherent in administrative work and World War I cut into his research time again, but he still managed to publish twoimportant monographs, The Regulation of the Circulatory System in 1930, and The Regulation of Respiration in 1931.

Hess brought an unusual variety of tools and skills to his research. He had learned the basic principles of physics from his father, he knew a great dealabout optics and hand-eye coordination from his days as an ophthalmologist, and he was a skilled surgeon. These all proved useful when he began conductingbrain research on experimental animals. Hess's work on the circulatory and respiratory systems had included investigations of their interrelationship with other parts of animal physiology, including how blood flow and breathing were affected by the nervous system. Gradually this led to research on the areas of the brain responsible for regulating internal organs.

Of particular interest to Hess was the diencephalon, which is located under the cerebellum and is thus very difficult to access without damaging the restof the brain. Hess designed very small electrodes and a mechanical guidance system that could implant the electrodes in experimental animals (cats) with the least possible disruption of their normal behavior. He also designed a method of delivering electrical stimulus pulses swiftly and accurately. On at least one occasion there was a public outcry about the use of animals for experimentation. Hess was instrumental in convincing the activists that, if properly regulated and humanely conducted, animal experiments were important for human welfare.

Using the electrodes to stimulate different areas of the brain, Hess observedthe results on other areas of bodily function, such as blood pressure, respiration, and body temperature. He recorded his observations not only on paper,but also on film, and maintained meticulous records of dissections and cellstudies. He also compared the results of electrical stimulation with behaviors resulting from naturally occurring brain lesions. He found that the diencephalon, and particularly the hypothalamus, controlled many of the body's responses, such as fear and hunger, and he was able to map out some of these responses in detail. Partly due to the isolation imposed by World War II, and partly because his papers were written entirely in German, the outside world knewlittle of his work until he had accumulated about 25 years worth of experiments. This may have been fortunate, because, as he wrote in his sketch, "The vast number of experiments turned out to be decisive; for generalization concerning symptoms, syndromes, and localizations could be supported only by sucha large body of data."

In 1949, Hess won a share of the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine for his work in analyzing the function of the diencephalon, part of the interbrain, and its role in coordinating the body's internal organs; Portuguese neurosurgeon Antonio Egas Moniz shared the award for his work on white brain matter.Other recognitions he received included Switzerland's Marcel Benorst Prize in 1933 and the German Society for Circulation Research's Ludwig Medal in 1938.

Hess married the former Louise Sandmeyer in 1908; the couple had two children, Rudolf and Gertrud. He retired in 1951, although he continued his work andwas instrumental in the establishment of an institute for brain research. Hedied in Locarno, Switzerland on August 12, 1973.

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