Joseph Erlanger was a renowned American physiologist who conducted extensive studies in the field of neuroscience. His most important works include the discovery of a variety of nerve fiber, the determination of the relation between a nerve fiber diameter and action potential velocity and the development of the modified Western Electric Oscilloscope as well as an adapted version of the sphygmomanometer. After completing his graduation in Chemistry, he went on to pursue studies in medicine and completed his M.D degree from John Hopkins University in 1899. Though initially, he focused on cardiology, later he shifted his area of study to neuroscience and conducted several notable studies in the field. He began his career at the John Hopkins University and later shifted to the University of Wisconsin in 1906. Here he began his association with Herbert Spencer Gasser which lasted until 1931 and as a result of their partnership several critical inventions and discoveries were made in the field of neuroscience. They were jointly presented with the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1944 for ‘their discoveries relating to the highly differentiated functions of single nerve fibers’.
Childhood & Early Life
Joseph Erlanger was born on 5 January 1874 at San Francisco, California. He was the sixth child of Herman and Sarah Erlanger who were Jewish immigrants from the Kingdom of Württemberg in Germany.
In 1892, he completed his school education from the Lowell High School in San Francisco. In 1895, he completed his Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from the University of California in Berkley.
He subsequently enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore to pursue studies in medicine and attained his M. D degree in 1899.
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Upon completing his graduation, Joseph Erlanger went on to continue his internship at the John Hopkins hospital for a year after which he was appointed at the medical school there.
He worked at the Department of Physiology and began his career as an assistant. He later took up the post of Instructor and used to deliver lectures on topics related to metabolism and digestion as part of his work.
In 1901, he published a paper on the digestive system of canines. This work caught the attention of physiology professor William H Howells, who recruiter Joseph Erlanger as an Assistant Professor. He was later promoted as Associate Professor.
In 1906, he joined the Medical school associated with the University of Wisconsin as the first Professor of Physiology. Among his students was Herbert Spencer Gasser who went on to become a noted physiologist and collaborated with Joseph Erlanger for several research and study purposes.
A few years later, in 1910, he joined as the Professor of Physiology at the Medical School of Washington University in St. Louis. Here he received more support and funding for his research projects.
In 1922, Joseph Erlanger along with Herbert Spencer Gasser developed a modified Western Electric cathode ray Oscilloscope that functioned in low voltage. This assisted in their study of nerve action potentials in two phases. Prior to this invention, there was only a device named electroencephalograph that measured neural activity that too in cases of large electrical activity.
With the cathode ray Oscilloscope, they identified different types of neurons and its forms along with their individual capability for excitability. Their studies proved that the velocity of action potential is directly proportional to the diameter of a nerve fiber.
In 1931, with Herbert Spencer Gasser joining the Cornell University, their long term partnership came to an end. His other research works include the study of metabolism of dogs with shortened intestines and studies related to shock and functioning of the arteries while producing sound.
In 1937, he authored a book titled ‘Electrical Signs of Nervous Activity’. Throughout his career he conducted research in a range of topics. However, he focused upon the physiology of the circulatory system and electrophysiology. Initially, his area of interest was cardiology, specifically the working of the atrium and ventricle. He also designed and patented a model of Sphygmomanometer that enabled the measurement of blood pressure from the brachial artery.
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As a result of his research, he also developed a clamp with which the auriculo-ventricular bundle of the heart in mammals could be reversibly blocked. The device aided his studies in identifying issues associated with the functioning of the bundle.
In 1946, he retired while serving as Chairman of the Medical School at the Washington University. After his retirement he was designated as a Professor emeritus at the school.
Joseph Erlanger was a noted physiologist whose primary focus in research was neuroscience. His inventions of devices like the adapted cathode ray oscilloscope, and modified sphygmomanometer were considered a breakthrough. He along with counterpart physiologist H.S.Gasser conducted studies that led to the discovery of the various types and forms of neurons and the measurement of their action potential in different stages.
Awards & Achievements
He was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1944 along with physiologist Herbert Spencer Gasser.
He was the recipient of honorary degrees from several prestigious universities like the University of Pennsylvania, University of California, University of Michigan, and University of Wisconsin.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Aimée Hirstel in 1906 and the couple had three children - Margaret (born in 1908), Ruth Josephine (born in 1910) and Herman (born in 1912). His wife Aimée Hirstel as well as his son Herman died in the year 1959.
Joseph Erlanger died of heart disease on 5 December 1965, at the age of 91, at St. Louis, Missouri.
On 8 December 1976, the Joseph Erlanger House at St. Louis was designated as National Historical Landmark in appreciation of his efforts and achievements.
In 2009, a crater on the moon was named after him by the International Astronomical Union.