Scientist and educator who studied nerves and muscles
Sir Andrew Huxley:SIR ANDREW Huxley, who has died aged 94, was one of the great scientists and university administrators of our time – a Nobel laureate, a master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and an exceptionally perceptive and balanced president of the Royal Society.
As a scientist, he possessed unusual breadth which, allied to practical gifts, enabled him to design and make essential and highly specialised experimental equipment. These skills underpinned his pioneering research into nerve function and muscle structure.
Huxley was a collaborator and lifelong friend of Sir Alan Hodgkin, and succeeded him as master of Trinity in 1984. They shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1963 for unravelling the biophysical mechanism of the nerve impulse. (The Australian Sir John Eccles also shared the prize.)
Huxley was a grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, the 19th-century biologist who was among Charles Darwin’s most outspoken champions, and was half-brother to the biologist Julian Huxley and the novelist Aldous Huxley. When asked whether, with this background, it had been inevitable that he would become a scientist, Huxley declared that in spite of the family connections, the odds were stacked against it.
“There must have been 40 or more descendants of TH Huxley older than myself and there were only two scientists before me,” he said.
Nevertheless, Huxley recorded that the household of his boyhood, in Hampstead, north London, was imbued with knowledge of science and with a feeling for practical engineering. His father, Leonard, had written the definitive Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley (1900), shortly after his grandfather’s death.
His mother, Rosalind Bruce (Leonard’s second wife), was a practical person and highly skilled with her hands. There were a couple of old microscopes in the house and, when Huxley was about 12, he and his brother, David, were given a lathe.
Huxley became intensely interested in microscopy and was soon delighted by his ability to design, make and assemble mechanical objects of all kinds. These practical interests stayed with him throughout his life and, in many important ways, provided the bedrock for his innovative research.
Huxley’s collaboration with Hodgkin on the nature of nerve impulses began in 1939, when Hodgkin returned from the US to a fellowship at Trinity and Huxley became one of his postgraduate students. At this time, there was bitter controversy about the way in which neural signals were generated and transmitted along fibres and across synapses.
Although the notion of a wholly electrical system had been abandoned, and it was being increasingly accepted that signals were transmitted across the junctions chemically, the nature of the signal in the fibre remained mysterious.
Received wisdom was that it was electrical, produced by the movement of sodium ions, and that it travelled along the centre of the fibre.
But measurements made earlier by Hodgkin at Cambridge, and afterwards by Hodgkin, KS (Kacy) Cole and others in the US, suggested that this view of the nerve fibre as a kind of elongated but simple battery was not tenable. However, finding out what was really happening posed great experimental difficulties.
Huxley began working with Hodgkin on this when they were together at the Marine Biological Association laboratory at Plymouth in 1939.
Almost before their collaboration had become established, it was abandoned, because of the outbreak of the second World War. Hodgkin was quickly absorbed in radar research with the air ministry.