Obituary: Professor George Ettlinger

Click to follow
The Independent Online
George Ettlinger, neuropsychologist: born 5 May 1927; Lecturer, Department of Psychological Medicine, Institute of Neurology 1952-60, Senior Lecturer 1960-62; Senior Lecturer, Department of Experimental Neurology, Institute of Psychiatry 1962-66; Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychiatry, Institute of Psychiatry 1966-70; Reader 1970-75; Professor of Neuropsychology 1976-80; Professor of Psychology, University of Bielefeld 1980-89; twice married (one son, one daughter); died 15 December 1993.

GEORGE ETTLINGER was a leading figure in the post-war development of the discipline of neuropsychology, the empirical study of the links between brain and behaviour.

Ettlinger was born in Germany, but was educated in Oxford, attending St Edward's School, and (after three years in, the Royal Tank Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps) reading Psychology and Physiology at Balliol. He gained his PhD at London University in 1955, and joined a loosely knit group of pioneers who helped shape neuropsychology during the late 1950s and 1960s. The meetings of this influentia1 group (which included Ennio De Renzi, Henri Hecaen, Mortimer Mishkin, Hans-Lucas Teuber, Brenda Milner, and Oliver Zangwill) became formalised as the International Neuropsychological Symposium, which still meets annually. In 1964, Ettlinger became a founder-member of the Editorial Board of Cortex (initiated by De Renzi), and an Associate Editor of Neuropsychologia (founded by Hecaen the previous year). He was elected to the organising committee of the INS, serving on it from 1966 to 1975.

Ettlinger began his research career under the supervision of Professor Zangwill, and published one of his most influential papers as a result of that early work. At the time (the early 1950s), there was widespread scepticism that it was possible for brain damage to cause a patient to suffer from a specific failure of visual recognition ('visual agnosia'). It was generally believed that recognition difficulties could be attributed to a combination of elementary sensory losses (ie of colour vision or visual acuity), along with intellectual deficits. By carrying out a series of tests, however, Ettlinger convincingly disproved this view: he showed that patients could suffer from severe sensory deficits and yet still be well able to recognise objects, whilst conversely a patient could be agnosic yet have only mild sensory deficits.

In 1956-57, Ettlinger spent a formative period of leave working with Karl Pribram in Hartford, Connecticut, and his career took a turn in the direction of primarily animal research. Yet this never formed his exclusive interest, and his primary motivation always remained that of trying to understand the human brain.

In his initial studies, Ettlinger used 'disconnection' techniques to demonstrate the crucial importance for visual recognition of a pathway connecting the monkey's primary visual cortex with its temporal lobe in the same hemisphere. This work was developed further by Mishkin and laid the foundation for the present enormous research effort being focused upon cortical visual areas.

Ettlinger's interests were never narrowly centred on the brain mechanisms of visual recognition. He carried out extensive work on the role of the corpus callosum in integrating activity between the two sides of the brain; on 'cross-modal transfer', whereby, for example, a seen object could be recognised through touch; on epilepsy and its effects on memory; on left/right- hand preferences; and on the brain mechanisms of tactile recognition. In an imaginative departure during the 1970s, Ettlinger started to address, both theoretically and empirically, questions of the differences and commonalities among human and non-human primates.

All George Ettlinger's scientific work was characterised by two things: an absolute honesty and integrity, and a careful and rigorous experimental approach. For these qualities of his research he gained the utmost respect, and admiration, of his peers and of his students and colleagues. He lacked, however, an inclination towards 'PR': he never pushed himself forward or attempted to popularise his work, and consequently he never gained broad recognition.

Ettlinger took early retirement from the Chair of Psychology at Bielefeld at the age of 62, and concentrated on enjoying life at his home beside the Thames near Twyford. His success in doing this (his principal interests being gardening, boating, DIY, music, and cine filming) will be an abiding and happy memory for his widow Madeline (wife, for only 20 months), and his two children Anthony and Jenni (both born to his first wife, Pam).

(Photograph omitted)