Bird (Photo: Iñigo Mujika)

Bird (Photo: Iñigo Mujika)

The great British physiologist Sir Andrew Huxley died a few days ago at the age of 94. One of his major achievements was explaining how electricity travels the length of a single nerve cell, for which he was awarded the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The prize was shared with fellow scientists Sir John Eccles and Alan L. Hodgkin, whose joint work revealed the key triggers that spark the nervous system’s electrical system into life.

That muscle contraction and movement required electricity had been known for two centuries, but how this electricity was generated and transmitted in living organisms was a complete mistery, as we can see in the following extracts from Hitchcock & Hitchcock’ 1860 book Elementary Anatomy and Physiology for Colleges, Academies and Other Schools.

“75. Myotility. – The grand peculiarity of muscular tissue is its power of contraction – a phenomenon as mysterious and wonderful as anything in nature. This is called myotility or contractility.”

“266. Muscular Waste the Cause of Muscular Contraction.- But here the question meets us, What is this power that passes through the nerves to each fibril, and how does it energize the muscle? Is it a fluid acting on the fibers in the same manner that water acts upon the strands of a rope, or is it an imponderable agency, like electricity or heat, passing through the nerve by polar attraction or conduction from particle to particle? At present we must rest with the facts of muscular movement, and perhaps we can never solve the mystery in this world. The nature of what we vaguely denominate nervous or vital force has never been determined. No mystery in religion exceeds that of muscular movement (…) Hence a plausible theory offers itself to explain the cause of muscular contraction, which is, that “muscular contraction is the necessary physical result of muscular disintegration.”

“271. Duration of Muscular Contraction – Intrinsic and Available Force – Shortening of Muscular Fiber – Muscular Sense – Sound and Heat.- (…) It is also an established fact that a peculiar rumbling sound is given off and heat evolved during muscular contraction, the latter of which is easily explained by the increased muscular waste, or the absorption of oxygen and evolution of carbonic acid.”

These statements provide a good idea about the magnitude of the achievements of Huxley and colleagues.

Biography of Sir Andrew Huxley

More information about the research that was awarded the Nobel Prize


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