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John Carew Eccles

Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Neurobiology, State University of New York in Buffalo
1903 to 1997

Sir John Carew Eccles best known for his Nobel Prize-winning research in neuroscience was born 27 January 1903 in Melbourne Australia. He studied medicine at Melbourne University and graduated with first class honours in 1925 and then entered Magdalen College Oxford in the same year as a Victorian Rhodes Scholar. Eccles began this program as an undergraduate in order to study under Sir Charles Sherrington a Gifford Lecturer and distinguished neuroscience pioneer.

After graduating in 1927 again with distinction Eccles began his research on reflexes with Sherrington at Exeter College Oxford. He married Irene Frances Miller in 1928. Eccles continued his research as Sherrington’s assistant until 1931 and published eight conjoint papers during this time. Over the course of his marriage Eccles had nine children five daughters and four sons several of which went on to become PhD-holding scientists.

Eccles received his DPhil degree at Oxford in 1929 with a thesis on excitation and inhibition of neurons the same theme which was to later win him a Nobel Prize in 1963. While appointed to various fellowships and demonstratorships at Exeter College and Magdalen College in the early 1930s he devoted much of his research to synaptic transmission in the central nervous system and in other more specific sites in the nervous system. Also during this period of research Eccles was involved in a controversy about whether synaptic transmission was electrical or chemical in nature with Eccles himself arguing for the electrical theory against fellow researcher Dale the proponent of the experimentally successful chemical theory.

Eccles left England in 1937 for Sydney to direct a small medical research facility working for the next six years mainly in the electrophysical analysis of the joints of cats and frogs. Toward the end of this time he shifted his focus to applying science to military aims. He later served as professor of physiology at the University of Otago in New Zealand where he resumed his work on synaptic transmission from 1944 until 1951. With the help of his colleagues Eccles succeeded in being the first to measure the electrical responses of excitatory and inhibitory systems by inserting tiny electrodes into nerve cells. During this time in New Zealand Eccles met philosopher Karl Popper who was to affect him greatly in his later work which integrated his scientific work into a larger philosophical system. Unlike many others in the field of neuroscience Eccles developed a dualist philosophy he called interactionist dualism which maintained there are who distinct substances in the universe one physical and the other mental.

From New Zealand Eccles moved on to the Australian National University to act as professor of physiology from 1952 until 1966. In his early years here he was involved in the research of the biophysical properties of synaptic transmission with Coombs and Fatt which was to earn him the Nobel Prize. Eccles shifted from this work into the research of organization of communication pathways at the Canberra Laboratory beginning in 1960. He researched this area at both the Institute of Biomedical Research at Chicago and the University of New York at Buffalo and continued to produce related publications.

In his last few decades Eccles looked more and more at the larger picture in which his research was involved and dealt with philosophical questions developing his own answers to basic questions such as what it means to be human. During these years he never stopped looking to scientific research for answers but used this research as his evidence while keeping in mind the limitations of such an approach. Eccles delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 1977 with the titles ‘The Human Mystery’ and ‘The Human Psyche’. Sir John Eccles died on 2 May 1997.