Lives of the fellows

Edgar Douglas, Lord Adrian

b.30 November 1889 d.4 August 1977
1st Baron Adrian of Cambridge OM(1942) BA Cantab(1910) MB BChir(1915) MRCP(1916) MA MD(1919) FRS(1923) FRCP(1924) PRS(1950-55) Nobel laureate Medicine(1932)†

ED Adrian came of Huguenot stock on his father’s side. His father, ADA Adrian, was legal adviser to the Local Government Board, his maternal grandfather taught mathematics at the RMC Sandhurst. Adrian’s visits to seaside towns were restricted by his father’s expert knowledge of the deficiencies of their sewage systems! He was educated at Westminster School and Trinity College Cambridge, where he obtained 30% more marks in Pt I of the Tripos than anyone had had in living memory. He obtained a first in Pt II of the Tripos in the following year and in 1913 became a fellow of Trinity College. In the next year he left Cambridge and qualified from St Bartholomew’s Hospital in 1915.

In spite of efforts to get to France, he was kept at the Connaught Military Hospital at Aldershot, where he was influenced by Adolphe Abrahams and Francis Walshe. He worked chiefly on nerve injuries, on ‘shell shock’ and on various forms of hysteria, using electrical stimuli and vigorous suggestion, and he had some success with ‘neurasthenia’ treated by evoking suppressed experience.

His pre-war work with Keith Lucas on nerve conduction had made him well aware of the difficulties of interpretation which arise when dealing with whole nerve trunks containing hundreds of nerve fibres. He was therefore looking for ways of recording the activity of single fibres, and with advice from A Forbes and later from HS Gasser, he built a valve amplifier and recorded the output with a capillary electrometer. In his first experiment with this apparatus, he found that he could record afferent discharges from muscle spindles in a sciatic-gastrocnemius preparation from the frog, and he settled down to recording single units either by cutting down the muscle, or by dissecting fibres from the nerve trunk.

In his first book, The Basis of Sensation (1926), he established that sensory discharge consists of all or none impulses whose frequency increases with the strength of the stimulus. His second book, The Mechanism of Nervous Action (1932), expanded the work on sensory channels and established the corresponding activity of motor nerves in reflex and voluntary motor action. This work, and the Adrian-Bronk needle developed for it, provided the starting point for clinical electromyography. In the same year, 1932, he shared the Nobel prize with Sir Charles Sherrington for their researches into neuromuscular coordination.

Adrian then became interested in the synchronization of neuronal discharge, and with BHC Matthews and later with Yamagiwa analysed the Berger rhythm and began the search for its neuronal basis. This led directly to clinical electroencephalography. He also began recording directly from the cerebral cortex in the cat, monkey, pig, sheep and Shetland pony. He pointed out that there are very large differences in the amount of cortex devoted to somatic representation in different ungulates depending on the use made of the part, the snout, the nostril or the fore-leg, in the investigation of the environment. He also was the first to observe the second somatic sensory area, a finding which has led to the recognition of a multiplicity of somatic, auditory and visual areas. Work with Moruzzi began our understanding of what goes on in the motor area.

He made notable additions to knowledge of touch, pain and retinal activity and also investigated afferent fibres in the vagus from the lung, from the carotid sinus, from the vestibular apparatus and from the olfactory bulb, as well as the efferent activity of the autonomic nervous system. On each subject he wrote not merely the first but the classical paper. His third and last book, The Physical Background of Perception (1947), deals with peripheral and central sensory events, and the neuronal basis of recognition, learning and memory.

He was Fullerton research professor of the Royal Society from 1929 to 1937, when he became professor of physiology at Cambridge. He was a modest but brilliant lecturer and his demonstrations were long remembered. In 1951 he became master of Trinity and retired in 1965. Two of these years he had to spend as vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge and he was chancellor, the first medical man to be so honoured since at least the 15th century, from 1967 to 1975. He was made a hereditary peer in 1955. He was a member of some 48 learned societies and was given 29 honorary degrees.

Although difficult to approach in the laboratory, he could be extraordinarily helpful. In 1936, he excused himself from a visit from me with a six page letter in long hand, containing all the details of technique necessary for dissecting out single mammalian nerve fibres! After he was raised to the peerage he continued to ride a very old bicycle around Cambridge, doing the shopping after his wife’s mountaineering accident.

In 1934 he married Hester Pinsent, later DBE; they had two daughters and a son, RH Adrian FRS, who succeeded to the title.

D Whitteridge

† The list of honorary degrees is too lengthy to include.

[Biog.Mem.Roy.Soc., 1979, 25, pp. 1-73; Brit.med.J., 1977, 2, 463; Lancet, 2, 414-15; Times, 6 Aug 1977; Nobel Foundation: Nobel lectures…physiology or medicine, 1922-1941 (Amsterdam 1965) pp. 273-7, 293-304]

(Volume VII, page 3)

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