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Thoughts on the Passing of Sir Andrew Huxley, OM, FRS, Nobel Laureate

By Alan J. McComas


With the death of Sir Andrew Huxley on 30 May 2012, the world lost not only an intellectual giant but a man respected, admired, and loved by all who knew him. Born into a most distinguished family, Andrew was at the age of 94, likely to have been the last surviving grandchild of T. H. Huxley, the Victorian scientist and educator, and the friend and champion of Charles Darwin. Andrew’s brothers (by his father’s first marriage) included Julian Huxley, the zoologist and first Director-General of UNESCO, and Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World. Of the many family members, it was perhaps his grandfather that Andrew had most closely resembled for both had studied medicine, been fascinated by microscopy at an early age, and had chosen physiology as their field of scientific study. Indeed, Andrew would sometimes draw on something that T. H. Huxley had written to illustrate one of his own lectures or essays.

Among physiologists, it is well known that Andrew shared the Nobel Prize with Alan Hodgkin and John (Jack) Eccles in 1963. Less well known is the fact that when Andrew and Alan Hodgkin made their first breakthrough in the study of the nerve impulse in 1939 — by recording with an electrode inside the giant axon of the squid — Andrew was only 21. When the work was continued after the Second World War, it was Andrew who got the newly-constructed voltage clamping circuit to work and carried out the complex and enormously lengthy calculations using a hand calculating machine that resulted in the famous Hodgkin-Huxley equations of nerve membrane excitation.

As if this was not a sufficient achievement, Andrew then went on to study muscle contraction, using an interference microscope of his own design, and simultaneously with Hugh Huxley (no relation) developed the sliding filament theory. He also made a critical observation as to how excitation was carried from the surface to the interior of the muscle fibre. There were many who thought that the two Huxleys should have shared a Nobel Prize for this fundamental and highly important work, which would have been Andrew’s second such award. Andrew’s last experiments were on molecular motors (such as those responsible for the sliding muscle filaments) and the table in his rooms at Trinity College Cambridge was often heaped with scientific papers on this subject from other laboratories. Interestingly, the Brunsviga calculating machine, used for the Hodgkin-Huxley equations, remained on top of a filing cabinet in a corner of the same room.

My first-hand knowledge of Andrew was gained as a young postdoctoral fellow at University College London, at the time that he was the Jodrell Professor. To us younger ones, he was like a god and it was notable that even the senior members of the physiology department would bring their research problems to him for help, despite the fact that they were outside Andrew’s own field of interest. Foolishly, some of us thought we might beat him at tennis during the annual departmental retreat at Shenley, but he was too good for us at that, too. Indeed, he remained very fit until late in life and could still run up the stairs, two at a time, well into his eighties. Later I had the privilege of being entertained by Andrew in his lovely Grantchester home. His kindness, thoughtfulness, and decency were qualities long remembered.

Finally, it was Andrew’s life and achievements that provided the inspiration for my recent book, Galvani’s Spark: The Story of the Nerve Impulse, published last August by Oxford University Press. I could not have been happier when Andrew accepted the dedication.

Andrew Fielding Huxley
22 November 1917 – 30 May 2012

Dr. Alan J. McComas was born in Bruce Rock in Western Australia and immigrated to the United Kingdom where he attended Great Yarmouth Grammar School. He received both his BSc in physiology and MBBS from Durham University in the UK and was trained at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle upon Tyne, the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London, and the Department of Physiology at the University College London. After successive positions at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, in 1971 he became Professor of Medicine (Neurology) at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. In 1988, he also became the Founding Chair in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at McMaster University. Since 1996 he has held the position of Emeritus Professor of Medicine.

Dr. McComas has pursued a successful career in medicine and physiology. His research accomplishments include some of the earliest microelectrode studies of muscle diseases, the electrophysiological estimation of numbers of human motor nerve fibers, and, more recently, the demonstration that magnetic stimulation of the brain may abort migraine attacks. In 2001, he achieved the Distinguished Researcher Award of the American Association of Electrodiagnostic Medicine. He was also awarded a Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 2005. On two occasions, he has been peer-ranked in the top 2% of doctors in North America. He has authored or coauthored seven books.

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