Lives of the fellows

Bernard (Sir) Katz

b.26 March 1911 d.23 April 2003
KT(1969) MD Leipzig(1934) PhD Lond(1938) DSc Lond(1943) FRS(1952) FRCP(1978)

Sir Bernard Katz (‘BK’ as he was known to friends and colleagues) was a Nobel prize winning biophysicist whose work made an extraordinary contribution to our understanding of the biochemistry of the nervous system and the function of the mysterious pineal gland in the brain.

Born in Leipzig, Germany, his father, Max, was a fur trader who had emigrated from Russia in 1904 and ran a fur shop. His mother, Eugenie née Rabinowitz, was of Polish origin and the daughter of Bernhard, a businessman. His parents married in Vienna in 1909 and the family were, effectively, stateless after the Russian revolution, as they did not apply for Soviet or German citizenship. Although they were very liberal in their beliefs, Katz’s first experience of anti-Semitism was being excluded from his parent’s preferred, science orientated, school at the age of nine because he was a Jew. Instead he attended the König Albert Gymnasium where he had a more classical education – which, he later said, gave him time to enjoy playing chess in the cafes of Leipzig. After considering studying philosophy and literature at university, he decided on a medical career which would have more potential for earning a living outside Germany. He studied medicine at Leipzig University and won a prize in 1933, the year Hitler came to power, which, as a non-Aryan he was not allowed to accept. The following year he graduated, worked for a few months at the Eitingon Jewish Hospital, and left for the UK in 1935, reputedly with £4 in his pocket.

When he arrived in Harwich, he said that he felt ‘reborn’ in spite of his lack of funds and minimal English. He had applied to work in the laboratory of Professor A V Hill at University College London (UCL). Hill was a Nobel winning scientist who worked tirelessly to help refugees from Nazi Germany. His laboratory had a strong research tradition in physiology, particularly in muscle structure and function. It was here that Katz began his fundamental research on the nature of the chemical–electrical transmission of nerve impulses across the ‘gaps at nerve junctions’. During his time there Katz lived with Hill and his family in Highgate and was to describe this period as ‘the happiest but most impecunious time of my life’.

In 1938 he gained his PhD and was awarded a Carnegie Fellowship at the Kanematsu Memorial Institute for Pathology (KMIP) in Australia. He left in 1939, a month before the start of the Second World War, and taking his parents with him, having managed to get them out of Germany earlier that year. In Sydney he worked with John (later Sir John) Eccles, an Australian physiologist whom he had met at Oxford through Sir Charles Sherringham. Together with Eccles, and S W Kuffler, an Hungarian physiologist who later joined them, he began to lay the foundations of synaptic physiology.

Having become a naturalised British citizen in 1941, he was accepted to join the Royal Australian Air Force in 1942 and served as a flight lieutenant in charge of running a mobile radar unit in the south-west Pacific until 1943. This posting was followed by a job back in Sydney for two years, developing radar at Sydney University’s Radio-Physics Laboratory.

On demobilisation he received a telegram from A V Hill inviting him to return to UCL as Henry Head Fellow of the Royal Society assistant director of research in biophysics. In early 1946 he returned to the UK and to the Biophysics Research Unit at UCL. Although based in the unit, he spent much of his time working at Cambridge and at the Marine Laboratory at Plymouth with Sir Alan Hodgkin and Sir Andrew Huxley. Their joint research unravelled the electrochemical transmission of signals within squid nerve fibres and for this Huxley and Hodgkin eventually shared the 1963 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine. Reader in physiology at UCL from 1950 to 1951, he was appointed professor of biophysics and head of the biophysics department on Hill’s retirement in 1952. He remained there for 26 years until 1978 when he retired, to become an emeritus professor and honorary research fellow, having made the department a world centre for physiology and biophysics.

During his time at UCL, he was largely involved in examining the way nerve impulses are transmitted from nerve fibre to muscle fibre. In the 1930s Sir Henry Dale and his colleagues had discovered that the form of transmission could not be electrical and that acetylcholine was involved. It was Katz who unravelled the central role of acetylcholine and its key enzymes. His discovery of the ‘quantum’ character of nerve junction biochemistry was said to have transformed the perception of the scientific community of the nature of signal processing in the nervous system. For this work he was knighted in 1969 and shared the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine with Ulf von Euler (of Sweden) and Julius Axelrod (of the USA) in 1970.

He published numerous scientific papers on topics such as nerve and muscle physiology. In spite of his initial unfamiliarity with the language, his writing was elegant, precise and a joy to read. Significant books by him include Electric excitation of nerve (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1939), Nerve, muscle and synapse (McGraw Hill, 1966) and The release of neural transmitter substances (1969). Among awards from America, Germany, Japan and other parts of the world, he received the Royal Society’s Copley Medal in 1967.

Throughout his life he continued to play chess and, it was claimed, played with the same intensity that he conducted experiments, fiercely and well, and becoming exasperated when things went wrong. He loved music, history and literature and greatly enjoyed foreign travel, making many trips with his wife in the earlier years of his retirement. Some 30 years after he had left the country, he re-established a relationship with German scientists and the medical faculty in Leipzig. In 1990 the University of Leipzig awarded him an honorary MD and a street in the city was named after him.

During his time in Sydney he met Marguerite Penly (‘Rita’) on a tennis court. She was working for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and her father, William Charles Meredith Penly, was a civil servant. They married in 1945 and he was later to describe this as ‘the biggest personal achievement of my life in Australia’.

After a last holiday together in the Black Forest in 1994, Rita became increasingly frail and was cared for, from 1997, in a nursing home in Stanmore. Katz visited her daily and read to her from her favourite books. It was said that he lost a much of his impetus when she died two years later, but he still continued to visit his office in the department several times a week and enjoyed his 90th birthday celebrations at the Athenaeum. When he died he was survived by his sons, David, a doctor practising in Wales and Jonathan, a classics teacher at Westminster School.

RCP editor

[The Times 28 April 2003; Independent 26 April 2003; Guardian 24 April 2003; Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society - accessed 17 April 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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