Andrew Fielding Huxley Biography (1917-)


Andrew Fielding Huxley is an English physiologist whose research on nerve impulse transmission earned him the 1963 Nobel Prize for medicine and physiology, which he shared with his colleague Alan Lloyd Hodgkin and the Australian physiologist John Carew Eccles. Huxley and Hodgkin confirmed scientists' earlier discovery that nerve impulse transmission involves a momentary change in the nerve fiber's membrane , affecting the ability of particles to pass through it.

Huxley was born in London, England, on November 22, 1917, to a prominent andsuccessful family. His grandfather was the nineteenth-century biologist Thomas Henry Huxley. Julian Sorel Huxley, also a noted biologist, was Andrew's half-brother, as was the author Aldous Huxley. Andrew's father, Leonard, was also a writer. His mother was Rosalind (Bruce) Huxley. Huxley was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he received his B.A. in 1938 and his M.A. in1941. He began studying the physical sciences but switched to physiology in his last year.

In 1939, Huxley joined Alan Hodgkin at the Plymouth Marine Biological Laboratory to study the transmission of nerve impulses. There, Huxley and Hodgkin attempted to verify the work of other scientists, including Julius Bernstein, Joseph Erlanger, and Herbert Spencer Gasser. These scientists had hypothesized that a nerve impulse produces an electrical current between the active and resting regions of a nerve, and that this impulse causes a fleeting change in the permeability of the nerve fiber membrane. Hodgkin and Huxley went about their research by experimenting on squid, which have giant axons, or nerve fibers, and therefore were known to be particularly useful in studying nerve systems. They inserted a small electrode into the squid's axon, and connected it to a system that would measure the electrical currents produced when the nerve was stimulated.

Huxley's work was interrupted during World War II, when he spent two years doing operational research for the Anti-Aircraft Command and later worked for the Admiralty. In 1946, he returned to his alma mater, serving in a variety ofpositions--fellow, assistant director of research, director of studies, andreader in experimental biophysics--while he carried out and perfected his research with Hodgkin. He was married to Jocelyn Richenda Gammell Pease in 1947;they had five daughters and one son.

In the course of their research, Huxley and Hodgkin were surprised to learn that, contrary to earlier hypotheses, the outer layer of a nerve fiber is notequally permeable to all ions (charged particles). While a resting cell has low sodium- and high potassium-permeability, Huxley and Hodgkin found that, during excitation, sodium ions flood into the axon, which instantaneously changes from a negative to a positive charge. It is this sudden change that constitutes a nerve impulse. The sodium ions then continue to flow through the membrane until the axon is so highly charged that the sodium becomes electricallyrepelled. The stream of sodium then stops, which causes the membrane to become permeable once again to potassium ions.

Huxley and Hodgkin first announced their findings in 1951 and published a series of highly regarded papers in 1952. In 1955, Huxley was named to the RoyalSociety, and in 1960 he became the Jodrell Professor of Physiology at University College, London, where, according to Ronald Clark's history of the Huxley family, The Huxleys, he occupied the desk of his grandfather, T. H. Huxley. He remained professor at University College until 1983. In 1974 hewas knighted.

When he received the Nobel Prize in 1963, Huxley described the often laborious research and computations involved in his work. While crediting those scientists whose findings he built upon, he also allowed that there was much morework to be done in this field. One of the many applications of the methods and findings of Huxley and Hodgkin was discovered by John Carew Eccles, who shared the Nobel Prize with the two Englishmen. Eccles studied motor neurons inthe spinal cord and synapses using microelectrodes similar to those used by Huxley and Hodgkin. Huxley himself devoted much of his later research to studying muscle contraction. His findings have increased the understanding of diseases of the nervous system, as well as similar ionic mechanisms in the kidneyand heart.

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