Sir John Carew Eccles

The Australian neurophysiologist Sir John Carew Eccles (1903-1997) made a series of original contributions to the knowledge of how nerve cells communicate with each other.

John Carew Eccles was born in Melbourne, Australia, on January 27, 1903, the first of two children of two teachers. He attended high school in Warambool, Victoria, but graduated in Melbourne in 1919. He went on to Melbourne University to study medicine, and excelled at multiple athletics. He married Irene Miller in 1928, with whom he would have nine children. When he graduated from college in 1925 at the top of his class, with a bachelor of science and medicine degrees, and as a Rhodes scholar, he realized his dream to attend Oxford University. There he worked with Sir Charles Scott Sherrington, probably the greatest student of the physiology of the nervous system in the 20th century. Eccles carried on and developed further his teacher's scientific and philosophical ideas. He graduated from Magdalen College in Oxford in 1927, again with first-class honors and a scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford. Side by side with Sherrington, they investigated nerve impulses and synapses, which Sherrington had defined in 1897. In 1929 Oxford awarded Eccles a masters of arts and a doctor of philosophy degrees. Eccles continued to research the brain at Oxford until he returned to Australia in 1937.

During the early 1930s Eccles had become interested in the nature of synaptic transmission, particularly in the fundamental question of how signals are transferred from one nerve cell to another. For the next 30 years he pursued this theme in his characteristic style, which was different from that of most scientists. He generally proposed a hypothesis, made it as precise as possible, and championed it with enthusiasm and energy until eventually it was either found to be false or was greatly modified by new experimental data. While many workers feel it is a sign of failure if a pet hypothesis has to be abandoned, Eccles took pleasure in this and was stimulated into a new formulation.

In 1937 Eccles moved to Sydney, where he headed the Kanematsu Memorial Institute, a small, isolated research institute attached to a local hospital. With several younger colleagues, including Bernard Katz, who influenced him greatly, he studied the transmission of impulses from nerve to muscle until 1943. During this time, he carried out studies of synaptic transmission in the mammalian nervous system by making electrical recordings from the interior of individual nerve cells and analyzing in great detail the processes of excitation, as well as inhibition, at cell junctions. During World War II he aided in the Australian war effort by serving on committees on vision, hearing and airsickness, and by synthesizing blood serum for medical facilities.

In 1944 Eccles moved to New Zealand, and until 1951 taught physiology at the University of Otago Medical School in Dunedin. He also continued his research on synaptic transmission, and it was in 1951 that he actually disproved his own hypothesis about the electrical nature of synaptic transmission, and henceforth championed the alternate theory of chemical neurotransmission. His own tactic of wildly espousing theories and then rigorously working to prove them wrong was reinforced when he met Dr. Karl Popper in New Zealand, who encouraged him to do just that.

These findings further crystallized when he left Otago for the John Curtin School of Medical Research of the Australian National University in Canberra, where he became professor of physiology in 1952. In league with other researcher, he discovered how to induce certain synaptic reactions on a chemical and ionic level, and how to rewire nerve endings. Due to his cumulative research, Eccles was knighted in 1958, and was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology with Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley in 1963 for their respective studies on the production and transmission of nerve impulses.

Eccles was forced to retire from the Australian National University in 1966 upon reached their mandatory retirement age, but quickly accepted an enormous job offer from the American Medical Association to head their largest research group at their Institute for Biomedical Research in Chicago. Soon after, in 1968, he served as Distinguished Professor of Physiology and Medicine and the Dr. Henry C. and Bertha H. Buswell Research Fellow at the medical school of New York State University in Buffalo. Eccles's investigations continued to cover additional areas of the nervous system, as his aim was always an understanding of the working of the entire brain. He explored the functional interconnections in the cerebellum, summarizing his results in The Cerebellum as a Neuronal Machine (1967). In his personal life, he divorced his wife of almost forty years in 1968; a little over two weeks later he was remarried to Helena Taborikova, a medical researcher of some reknown.

Eccles's influence extended beyond his immediate scientific circle. In Australia he was a founder and president of the Academy of Sciences. He published in numerous scientific journals, gave many public lectures, and wrote a series of books which had wide circulation, including Physiology of Nerve Cells (1957) and Physiology of Synapses (1964). He also edited Brain and Conscious Experience (1966). He died on May 2, 1997, at the age of 84, in Switzerland.

Further Reading on Sir John Carew Eccles

A sketch of Eccles's life is in Theodore L. Sourkes, Nobel Prize Winners in Medicine and Physiology, 1901-1965 (rev. ed. 1967). His work is discussed in Alan Lloyd Hodgkin, The Conduction of the Nervous Impulse (1964), and in much greater detail in Ragnar Granit, Charles Scott Sherrington: An Appraisal (1967). A brief obituary which discussed his scientific accomplishments appeared in the May 3, 1997 edition of the Washington Post.