He developed and innovated upon interests shown by both his father, the first Lord Adrian, Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology, and his mother, Dame Hester Adrian. Born in 1927, Richard Adrian was educated at Swarthmore College, in the United States, Westminster School, in London, Trinity College, Cambridge, and University College, London, where he completed his training in Medicine. He spent much of his life in Cambridge, where he was successively a Research Fellow, Demonstrator, University Lecturer, and Reader before becoming Professor of Cell Physiology in 1978. He held fellow- ships successively at Corpus Christi (1955-61), Churchill College (1961-81), and Pembroke College, where he became Master in 1981.
Richard Adrian devoted his scientific energies to studying the properties and activation of muscle and the mechanisms that initiate movement: one of the most fundamental properties of living systems. His research papers, largely published in the Journal of Physiology, represent an imaginative yet thorough and analytical sequence of studies strategically timed to develop and utilise new electrophysiological techniques as they became available. His contributions were instrumental in the development of physiology, in its quantitative study of the functions of living cells, through measurement and analysis of their electrical activity.
At the outset of Adrian's career, physiologists were only just beginning to make preliminary electrical measurements across the membranes of living cells, and use these to understand their function. Yet even his early research papers are widely read and quoted in the field and are highly regarded as elegant and lucid accounts of meticulously executed experimental work that he performed himself at the benchside, often in close collaboration with a succession of colleagues in a small and cohesive research group.
His contributions began with important insights into the movements of charged particles, or ions, across the membranes of muscle cells, and how these movements regulate their voltage. His subsequent work showed how these electrical changes spread into the interior of the muscle fibre where contraction was to take place. Finally, he made important discoveries into the mechanisms by which molecules within these membranes respond to such voltage change to trigger the events that culminate in muscle contraction. He owed much of his success in this demanding scientific area to his remarkable capacity to temper his determination to advance scientific enquiry with judicious reflection and insight. It led to the subsequent work that identified and characterised the molecules that initiate muscle contraction and suggested that similar activation mechanisms may operate throughout biology,
Richard Adrian superimposed these scientific activities upon a hectic life in university and college teaching and in public and scientific administration. He served on the Medical Research Council Neurosciences Board (1974-76), as a Trustee of the British Museum (1979), on the Goldsmiths' Company, the General Medical Council (1980-82), the governing bodies of the Animal Virus Research Institute (1981-88) and of the Imperial College of Science and Technology (1981), the Home Office Advisory Committee on Animal Experiments (1981-85), the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology (he was a cross-bench peer), and the Board of the British Library (1987).
His achievements in these diverse fields of activity were recognised by the Royal Society, to which he was elected a Fellow in 1977, The Royal College of Physicians, and Darwin and Churchill Colleges in Cambridge, which elected him to Honorary Fellowships in 1985 and 1987 respectively.
Right to the end of this immensely full and successful life, Richard Adrian was regarded with much affection by all those who worked with him. He was one of the rare individuals who always found time to be approachable, helpful, and sympathetic to others in dealing constructively and tactfully with their problems and anxieties.
Christopher L.-H. Huang
Richard Hume Adrian, cell physiologist: born Cambridge 16 October 1927; University Demonstrator, Cambridge 1956-61, University Lecturer 1961-68; Reader in Experimental Biophysics 1968-78; FRS 1977; succeeded 1977 as second Baron Adrian; Professor of Cell Physiology, Cambridge University 1978-92; Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge 1981-92;Vice-Chancellor, Cambridge University 1985-87; FRCP 1987; married 1967 Lucy Caroe; died Cambridge 4 April 1995.