Sir John Eccles

Sir John Eccles (1903-1997)

Sir John Eccles, Foundation Professor of Physiology in the John Curtin School (1951-1966), shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1963 for his fundamental contributions to the ionic mechanisms of synaptic transmission in the brain, based on research carried out in the School.

He was also recognized internationally for his outstanding investigations of the properties, interconnections and integrative functioning of neurones in the mammalian spinal cord, hippocampal and cerebellar cortices, and for his numerous writings related to the mind-brain problem. Born in Melbourne, he graduated in medicine in 1925 and then as a Rhodes Scholar pursued a career in neurophysiology with Sir Charles Sherrington in Oxford. Eccles was a member of Sherrington's team investigating spinal reflexes, and also became involved in studying synaptic transmission in the heart and sympathetic ganglia. These latter studies led to his firm belief that transmission at synapses was too rapid to be chemical in nature, and was thus an electrical process. Following Sherrington's retirement in 1935, Eccles returned to Australia as Director of the Kanematsu Memorial Institute of Pathology at Sydney Hospital. In collaboration with Katz and Kuffler, an investigation of transmission at the neuromuscular junction convinced him that this was a chemical process mediated by acetylcholine.

From 1943-1951 he held the Chair of Physiology at the Medical School at the University of Otago in Dunedin, and it was here that he, together with Brock and Coombs, pioneered the use of intracellular microelectrodes to record from spinal motoneurones in anaesthetized cats. Their observations led Eccles to abandon his stoutly defended electrical theories of excitatory and inhibitory synaptic transmission in favour of chemical processes. Invited by the ANU Council to the John Curtin School Chair of Physiology, Eccles commenced experimentation early in 1953, the beginning of what he later described as "fourteen golden years, scientifically speaking". He attracted numerous scientists and Research Scholars to Canberra, further developed intracellular recording and other techniques for studying the excitation and inhibition of neurones in the spinal cord, thalamus, hippocampus and cerebellum, and established a remarkably productive "School" of neurophysiology. He also fostered developments in neurochemistry and neuropharmacology.

Faced with retirement in 1968, Eccles moved to the United States in 1966, initially to Chicago and from 1968-1975 to Buffalo as Distinguished Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at the State University of New York. In the US, he continued his study of the cerebellar cortex which had commenced in Canberra. This investigation, which by establishing the properties of all types of cerebellar neurone, was a major contribution to the understanding of the cerebellum and its associated structures. In 1975, Eccles retired to Switzerland, from where he travelled widely, continued his philosophical interests and published numerous articles and books dealing with the mind-brain problem. His bibliography lists 568 items, including 19 books, of which he was sole author of 12.

D R Curtis

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