Sir Andrew Huxley: Eminent scientist whose pioneering work earned him a Nobel Prize in 1963

Huxley often designed and built the new specialist equipment that his scientific work necessitated

Prof. Sir Andrew Huxley, widely regarded as one of Britain's most eminent scientists and great university administrators, the former master of Trinity College, Cambridge, shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1963 with Sir Alan Hodgkin, a lifelong friend and collaborator, and with Australian scientist Sir John Eccles, who was cited for research on synapses. They received the prize for unravelling the biophysical mechanism of nerve impulses which control muscle action.

Huxley and Hodgkin began collaborating on the nature of nerve impulses in August 1939, when Hodgkin invited him down to the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, following his return from America. While there, he had successfully demonstrated the mechanism by which electrical impulses activate the next segment of a nerve fibre, and had begun to work with the recently discovered nerve fibre of the giant squid. At the time, there was controversy about the way in which neural signals were generated and transmitted along fibres and across synapses – the connecting junctions where there are gaps between the ends of one fibre and the beginning of the next.

The scientists began experiments on the very large nerve fibres (diameter about 0.5mm) possessed by squids. Their first task was to measure the viscosity of the interior of the fibre by suspending it vertically and dropping droplets of mercury down it. This failed because the mercury droplets stopped as they entered the fibre, showing that its interior was a solid, not a viscous liquid as supposed. Instead, they pushed an electrode down inside, in order to measure directly the potential difference between inside and outside – and obtained a direct recording of the voltages across the nerve membrane, the first time that this had been done.

The consensus of the time was that the interior of a fibre at rest was up to one-tenth of a volt negative relative to the external solution, but rose to equality with the external potential at the peak of a nerve impulse. The pair confirmed this as regards the resting state, but the internal potential at the peak of the impulse was substantially positive. They published a short paper in the journal Nature, announcing their achievement of recording action potentials from inside a nerve fibre.

However, their work was suspended with the outbreak of the Second World War, during which time Huxley was involved in a number of projects. Initially a clinical student in London, due to the Blitz teaching was suspended, and Huxley spent the rest of the war on operational research in gunnery, first for Anti-Aircraft Command and later for the Admiralty, working in a team under Patrick (later Lord) Blackett. Hodgkin worked in radar research with the Air Ministry.

In spite of the war and their involvement in widely separated and often secret activities, the two men remained in touch and even swapped advice on particular problems. One such occasion saw Huxley design and produce, using a lathe, a new type of gun sight during the development of airborne radar.

Soon after the war, in 1946, they returned to neurological research at Cambridge. Their work necessitated the development of specialist equipment which in many cases was not only designed by Huxley, but also built by him. They began discussing how the squid membrane becomes specifically permeable to sodium ions. These are about ten times more concentrated in the external solution than inside the fibre, so they diffuse inwards, carrying their positive charge.

Within six years, Huxley and Hodgkin had laid the detailed foundations of the modern understanding of the transmission of nerve impulses. Their model, which was developed well before the advent of electron microscopes or computer simulations, was able to give scientists a basic understanding of how nerve cells work without having a detailed understanding of how the membrane of a nerve cell looked.

They demonstrated that these travel, not along the core of the fibre, but along the outer membrane as a product of successive cascades of two types of ion. The finding and the detailed mathematical theory that accompanied the work, completed in 1952 in a series of five papers, was groundbreaking and resulted in their share of the Nobel Prize.

Born in Hampstead in 1917, Andrew Fielding Huxley came from a celebrated family. His grandfather was Thomas Huxley, the 19th century biologist and staunch supporter of Charles Darwin; his two half-brothers were Julian Huxley, also a biologist, and Aldous Huxley, author of the novel Brave New World.

Surrounded by a plethora of books of all persuasions, Huxley became interested in science and practical engineering, learning how to make microscopes and other scientific instruments. He was encouraged by his mother, who was good with her hands, and at the age of 14 he received a metal-turning lathe. It proved a revelation. With it he produced many items including a 6cc two stroke internal combustion engine. This skill was to prove invaluable in later life, enabling him to design much of the equipment he used in his experiments.

Huxley attended University College School before transferring to Westminster School with a King's Scholarship. In 1935, he won a scholarship to read natural sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge. Initially, aiming to specialise in physics, a friend suggested physiology to Huxley because "it was a most vital subject" and he "would be learning things that were still controversial," which appealed to his sense of curiosity.

During his research with Hodgkin, Huxley also worked with the Swiss physiologist Robert Stämpfli on myelinated nerve fibres. Together, in 1951, they evidenced the existence of saltatory conduction in myelinated nerve fibres. Thereafter, Huxley turned to muscle contraction and its causes, and developed an interference microscope for studying the striation pattern in isolated muscle fibres. He also developed a microtome for electron microscope sections, and a micromanipulator.

In 1984, Huxley succeeded Hodgkin as master of Trinity, Cambridge, breaking the tradition whereby the mastership alternates between a scientist and an arts man. Huxley relished the opportunity and took on the role with his strong yet gentle and peaceful personality. He was carefully but sharply outspoken on issues of scientific structure, the university role and the need for long-term stability in the national research base.

Already a research fellow at Trinity College in the late 1940s, Huxley became director of studies from 1952-60, and was Jodrell Professor of Physiology at University College London (1960-69). As a Fellow of the Royal Society (1955), he served on its Council (1960-62) and held a Royal Society Research Professorship at UCL (1969-83). Huxley was an editor of the Journal of Physiology (1950-57), and also an editor of the Journal of Molecular Biology. He received many national and international honours.

***

To my knowledge, writes Tam Dalyell, Andrew Huxley took many initiatives to help scientists at the beginning of their careers and those facing adversity.

Allow me a personal experience. In 1981, I sabotaged in the House of Commons Standing Committee a Private Members Bill by the Wellingborough MP, Peter Fry, which would have had the effect of inhibiting scientific research in Britain on animals. My Party leaders, Jim Callaghan and Michael Foot, were deluged with over 500 seemingly independent, but incandescent letters complaining that "so wicked a man as Dalyell" could be endorsed as a Labour MP. What were they going to do to arrange my deselection as a Labour candidate in the 1983 general election? Callaghan, who was well disposed towards me, summoned me to his office. "What have you been up to? It's not only the anti-vivisectionists that have written, but a number of those who claim to be substantial financial donors to the Labour Party. How am I to reply?" Michael Foot summoned me. "I love cats," he said.

Unprompted, hearing of my plight, Andrew Huxley, as president of the Royal Society, broke precedent and wrote to Callaghan and Foot saying that the Fry bill would injure medical research. My bacon was saved.

Huxley's contribution to the Research Defence Society was extremely significant. For a quarter of a century after 1981, I would phone him from time to time about the content of my weekly column for New Scientist. No man was less conscious of his eminent positions.

Andrew Huxley, physiologist/biophysicist: born Hampstead, London 22 November 1917; Kt November 1974, Order of Merit 1983; married Jocelyn R.G. Pease 1947 (died 2003, one son, five daughters); died Grantchester, Cambridge 30 May 2012.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Danish director Lars von Trier
tvEnglish-language series with 'huge' international cast set for 2016
Life and Style
tech
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Secondary supply teachers needed in Peterborough

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: The JobAre you a trai...

Year 3 Teacher Cornwall

£23500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 3 Primary Teacher...

HR Generalist (standalone) - Tunbridge Wells - £32,000

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Generalist (standalone) - Tunbrid...

Year 3 Teacher Plymouth

£23500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 3 Primary Teacher...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering