Chapter I: Neuroscience Before Neuroscience, WWII to 1969
The founding of the Society for Neuroscience, at a crucial time in the development of the brain sciences, can be seen as the consequence of three intersecting factors that continue to shape the current contours of the field. First, the 1950s and 1960s witnessed a dramatic explosion of new technologies and neuroscientific findings that redefined and enlarged the possible range of questions that neuroscientists could and did ask. Second, largely because of the rapidly changing landscape of neuroscientific facts, researchers increasingly sought to create forums for communication and collaboration. Lastly, a number of institutions sought to transform these newly emerging relationships into concrete, tangible institutions that allowed laboratory researchers and medical professionals to communicate not only with each other but also with the public about their field.
The study of the nervous system has always posed special problems when compared to other organ systems. Indeed, even the centrality of the brain in cognition, emotions, sensation, and movement is not necessarily self-evident. Aristotle, for example, did not believe that the brain was critically involved in emotion, sensation, and movement; he instead attributed these functions to the heart, a view that ancient Egyptians also held. In contrast, Hippocratic physicians, despite their complex theory of humors as determinate of temperament, did attribute intellectual functions to the brain.
The physical nature of the brain made it especially difficult to study. On gross visual inspection, the brain looks like a gelatinous mass. The invention of the microscope at the end of the 17th century did little to help scientists visualize the inner substrates of neurons and glia. After the development of achromatic microscopes and better staining methods in the 19th century, botanist Matthias Jakob Schleiden in 1838 proposed that cells were the fundamental building blocks of plant life. Zoologist Theodor Schwann made the same claim for animals the following year. But neurons were less visible than other cells even to the improved microscopes of the early 19th century. The application of the cell theory to nervous tissue proved to be among the most vexing problems for early histologists. In 1871, Josef von Gerlach proposed that cells were not the fundamental unit of the brain. Instead, he claimed that individual nerve cells anastomosed with each other, creating a diffuse interconnected protoplasmic network. Two years later, Camillo Golgi perfected his silver staining method that allowed for the visualization of neurons with light microscopy (Figure 1).
As Santiago Ramon y Cajal wrote in 1917: “I expressed the surprise which I experienced upon seeing with my own eyes the wonderful revelatory powers of the chrome-silver reaction and the absence of any excitement in the scientific world aroused by its discovery.”1 Despite the clarity with which Golgi could now visualize neurons, he did not believe that they were distinct, individual cells, and held throughout his career to a modified version of von Gerlach’s reticular theory. Even in his Nobel lecture of 1906, as he accepted the Prize shared with Cajal, Golgi clung to his belief in the “anatomical and functional continuity between nerve cells.”2
Cajal (Figure 2), having improved upon Golgi’s staining methods, famously demonstrated (within the limits of light microscopy) the anatomical unity of the neuron in a series of pioneering publications in the late 1880s and early 1890s (Figure 3). The day after Golgi spoke, Cajal defended the neuron theory in his own Nobel lecture: “The nerve cells are morphological entities, neurons….The nerve elements possess reciprocal relationships in contiguity but not in continuity.”3
A series of international achievements in brain science followed in the first half of the 20th century, drawing on the seminal observations of Golgi and Cajal, particularly the latter’s recognition of the neuron as a single independent cell. The research and ideas of Charles Sherrington and Edgar Adrian characterized the nature of the synapse and the action potential, while the acetylcholine work of Otto Loewi and Henry Hallett Dale established the importance of neurotransmitters. These early observations revealed the centrality of the synapse and its role in the neural control of voluntary and voluntary activity, but also highlighted the promise of interdisciplinary collaboration and of new applications of technology. After John Carew Eccles acknowledged in 1951 that most communications between neurons were chemical in nature, a series of reports revealed the complicated and diverse roles of neurochemicals, including Arvid Carlsson’s discovery that dihydroxyphenylalanine (DOPA) reversed Parkinson-like symptoms, James Austin’s finding that chronic inflammatory neuropathy responded to prednisone, and Julius Axelrod’s demonstration that monoamine oxidase inhibitors increased catecholamine levels at the nerve terminal. Each of these developments highlighted the ways in which biochemists could elucidate the physiological mechanisms of the nervous system and how both neurophysiologists and neurochemists, working with clinicians, could contribute to neurology and psychiatry. Meanwhile, Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley had used classical neurophysiological methods, as well as mathematical modeling, to explain the ionic mechanism of action potential signaling in the giant squid axon. But, by the time Hodgkin and Huxley accepted their Nobel Prize in 1963, Bengt Falck and Nils-Ǻke Hillarp were using fluorescence histochemistry to trace neuronal projections while Michael Kidd and Robert Terry were identifying the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease with the electron microscope. Novel technologies proved to be potential keys to mapping the complexity of the brain and the central nervous system.
Throughout the 1960s, in departments of anatomy, biochemistry, neurology, physiology, and pharmacology, researchers around the world followed up on these clues, using new ideas and methods to ask more ambitious sets of questions about the brain and behavior. They mapped neural pathways and systems, identified and characterized neurotransmitters and studied phenomena such as memory, movement, pain, and vision in a range of organisms. As scientists deepened their understanding of the mechanisms and physicochemical interactions that linked biology to behavior, they transgressed established disciplinary boundaries again and again, until these lines began to dissolve and were replaced by a coherent spectrum of research that could be called “brain science.”
These new methods and cooperative projects opened up the possibilities of addressing fundamental questions about the mind-brain relationship through new interdisciplinary collaborations. As groups of scientists began to think about how they could collaborate most effectively to further their understanding of the brain and the nervous system, they had to consider what structure such collaborations would have and how they would work: How should we define brain science? Who belongs in this field? What common ideas and goals characterize our work and how can we borrow and share methods and techniques? How can we improve public understanding and attract or maintain public interest and support? What roles would a professional organization serve for its members and for society? In the late 1950s and 1960s, both sets of questions – scientific and organizational – were vigorously debated in a number of local and ad hoc groups.
Some brain scientists experimented with novel cross-disciplinary approaches to research and collaboration at their home institutions. In 1953, for example, University of Pennsylvania anatomy professor Louis Flexner founded the Institute of Neurological Sciences (now known as the Mahoney Institute for Neurosciences). Other major academic institutions, such as Cambridge University in the U.K., McGill University in Canada, and Columbia University and UCLA in the U.S., created similar institutions in the 1950s and 1960s to foster collaboration between researchers studying various aspects of the brain and nervous system.
In 1962, Francis O. Schmitt set up the Neurosciences Research Program (NRP) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with support from the National Institutes of Health (Figure 4).4 Schmitt did not intend the NRP to be a laboratory but explicitly described his creation as an interdisciplinary research program, bringing together the various “physical, biological and neural sciences … to attack a single goal,” to understand the connections between mind, brain, and behavior.5 He visualized NRP scientists from a range of areas of expertise gathering together at collaborative “Work Sessions” that would produce “workable hypotheses [and] new theories” to stimulate researchers around the world.6 Under Schmitt’s direction, the NRP held a series of meetings of national and international researchers that generated books and journal articles about neuroscience problems and findings linking biology and behavior; it became a source of educational innovation and provided crucial interdisciplinary contact for brain researchers at its work sessions and through its Bulletin. However, the NRP was too limited in scope to provide extensive coordination across multiple campuses and departments – one of the key functions that SfN would later fulfill. Neal Miller, one of SfN’s founders, later credited Schmitt with “laying the foundation and in bringing the field to the point at which such a Society would be possible.” Understanding that the NRP and SfN filled two different and non-competing roles for neuroscientists, Schmitt would lend “his characteristically warm and generous support to the Society.”7 Many NRP members would move into the SfN leadership and 10 out of the first 12 SfN presidents had been NRP Associates.8
Outside their academic grounds, individual brain researchers had long coordinated their own informal associations to present their work to interested colleagues from other disciplines.9 Starting in 1954, Karl Frank10 of NIMH invited several hundred researchers to gather on the first Sunday afternoon of the meeting of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). As Novera Herbert Spector recalled, these colloquia featured three invited speakers and “then dissolved into a free-for-all social and scientific gossip session…of the highest level.”11
In the 1960s, similar groups proliferated. In the US, scientists studying neurons or the brain would convene at the Western Nerve Net, the Know Nothing Club at Johns Hopkins, the Bay Area Neuroscience Group (BANG) in California, the Neurophysiology Club in Washington DC, or with the Axonologists in Chicago, who usually met in tandem with the American Physiological Society.12 Although many continued to participate in the scientific umbrella societies of their home disciplines, they found that these smaller, more focused meetings gave them additional opportunities to learn from one another.
The penultimate step in the establishment of an independent organization for brain science, however, was the National Academy of Sciences’ decision in 1965 to create a committee to respond to an international call for a global survey of brain research. The origins of this international effort began in 1958 with the Moscow meeting of the International Federation of Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology. Members in attendance unanimously endorsed the formation of an International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) to improve communication and promote international cooperation among scientists interested in the brain, which became a reality in 1960 under the auspices of UNESCO. An international coterie of basic researchers, including the French neurophysiologist Henri Gestaut, Russian physiologist Ivan Beritashvili, and Herbert Jasper, an American working in Canada, believed that advances in brain sciences merited an independent organization. In a rare instance of Cold War scientific cooperation, the founders created IBRO in the hope that it would foster collaboration in these developing fields that did not fit into existing clinical disciplines.
One of IBRO’s first major projects was to request that each of its member countries conduct a survey of the existing laboratories, research groups, and institutional support, as well as the resource needs, of eight subfields of brain science research, defined as “Neuroanatomy, Neurochemistry, Neuroendocrinology, Neuropharmacology, Neurophysiology, Behavioral Sciences, Neurocommunications and Biophysics, and Neuropathology.” In 1965, the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council (NAS-NRC) formed the Committee on Brain Sciences (CBS) to direct the U.S. survey; in retrospect, the CBS was the first operational step toward the founding of the Society for Neuroscience.13
Ralph Gerard, a physiologist from the University of California, Irvine, led the committee, which consisted of a relatively small group of scientific leaders (Table 1).
|Table 1. Committee on Brain Sciences, 1965-1969|
|R. W. Gerard||F. O. Schmitt|
|S. S. Kety||K. R. Unna|
|N. E. Miller||R. D. Adams|
|Frank Morrell||David Bodian|
|Eugene Roberts||V. H. Denenberg|
|Carl Pfaffmann||E. V. Evarts|
|D. B. Lindsley||W. W. Magoun|
|W. A. Rosenblith|
Though no women were members of the committee, the NAS staff person assigned to the Committee on Brain Sciences, Louise Marshall, was an energetic scientist and administrator who played an important organizational role in both the IBRO survey and the founding of SfN.14
From 1965 to 1969, the committee met every few months, rotating the leadership and responsibilities, and developed an understanding of the challenges posed by integrating the multiple strands of brain research. The members quickly discovered that, while the American brain research community was vibrant and active, it was widely scattered and lacked focus or impact. The CBS report on “Research Facilities and Manpower in Brain Sciences in the United States” appeared in two volumes during 1968 and 1969 (Figure 6); its findings awakened the committee to the need to develop a more formal national institution to link scientists, share knowledge of practices and findings, recruit government and foundation support, and disseminate the potential meaning and importance of the emerging brain-behavior connections.15
As Robert Doty of the University of Rochester recalled, the committee “came to recognize the diffuseness of neuroscience, a part of many disciplines but lacking a focus of its own….The idea began to crystallize that a single society along the multidisciplinary lines of IBRO itself might substantially strengthen the many disparate studies of the nervous system.16
Neuroscience as a vocation
The IBRO survey underlined what many already knew; namely, neuroscience was already an important and rapidly growing area of scientific interest. The training of new scientists provides an illustrative window into this growth. Assessing dissertation titles and abstracts completed between 1960 and 1976, Louise Marshall and Horace Magoun tabulated the number of neuroscience dissertations.1 They found that between 1960 and 1969, the number of doctoral dissertations on neuroscience topics increased by a factor of six from 50 to 301, compared to a 2.4-fold increase for all dissertations in the biological sciences. From 1970 to 1976, the number of neuroscience dissertations continued to increase, rising from 334 to 521.
- Marshall, L H, J A Rivera, and H W Magoun. "The Institutional Base for Education and Research Neuroscience." Experimental Neurology 49 (1975): 14-23.
- Recuerdos de mi vida, Vol. 2, Historia de mi labor científica. Madrid: Moya, 1917, p. 76. quoted in: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golgi's_method.
- Golgi, quoted in López-Muñoz, Francisco, Jesús Boya, and Cecilio Alamo. "Neuron Theory, the Cornerstone of Neuroscience, on the Centenary of the Nobel Prize Award to Santiago Ramón Y Cajal." Brain Research Bulletin 70, no. 4-6 (2006): doi:10.1016/j.brainresbull.2006.07.010, p. 400.
- Cajal, quoted in Lopez-Munoz, p. 401.
- Judith P. Swazey, “Forging a Neuroscience Community: A Brief History of the Neurosciences Research Program” in Frederic G. Worden, Judith P. Swazey, and George Adelman, eds. The Neurosciences: Paths of Discovery Cambridge: MIT Press, 1975, p. 529-546
- George Adelman, “The Neurosciences Research Program at MIT and the Beginning of the Modern Field of Neuroscience” Journal of the History of the Neurosciences: Basic and Clinical Perspectives 19:1 (2010), 15-23, p. 16.
- Adelman, “The NRP,” p. 17-19.
- Letter from Neal Miller to Louise Marshall, March 17, 1981, Letter to CBS members re: Society for Neuroscience 1981 Folder, Louise H Marshall Papers, Neuroscience History Archives, UCLA.
- Adelman, “The NRP,” p. 21.
- “Evolution of the Axonologists” NN 3:2, June 1972, p. 6; Candace Hsieh, “The Founding of the Society for Neuroscience” Unpublished research paper, June 1998, courtesy of Candace Hsieh and Bernice Grafstein.
- Karl Frank (1916-1993) was the Section Chief of the Section on Spinal Cord of the NIMH Laboratory of Neurophysiology and one of the first to observe and report presynaptic inhibition.
- Novera Herbert Spector, “Comment” NN 17:6, December 1986, p. 5. See also “Evolution of the Axonologists.”
- Robert Doty, “Neuroscience” in The History of the APS: The First Century, 1887-1987, American Physiological Society, 1987, pp. 427-434, p. 428; Ed Perl, “Society for Neuroscience – A History of Beginnings” NN 17:6, July/August 1986, p. 1, 3-5, p. 3.
- Louise H. Marshall, et. al, “ Historical Report: Early History of IBRO: The Birth of Organized Neuroscience” Neuroscience Volume 72, No. 1, 1996, p. 283-306; Robert Doty, “Neuroscience” in The History of the APS: The First Century, 1887-1987, American Physiological Society, 1987, pp. 427-434, p 430; Susan Cozzens, “IBRO in National and International Perspectives” in Marshall “Early History of IBRO” Neuroscience Volume 72, No. 1, 1996, p. 283-306, p. 302.
- Louise Henson Marshall (1908-2005) was educated at Vassar and at the University of Chicago, where she received her Ph.D. in physiology in 1935. After some years teaching and raising a family, she joined the wartime Aviation Medicine Unit at NIH, and then conducted renal physiology research for twenty years at the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Disorders, before joining the NAS-NRC staff in 1965. In 1975, she moved to UCLA, where she served as the editor of Experimental Neurology and co-founded the Neuroscience History Archives with Horace W. Magoun in 1980, serving as the Archives Director until her death.
- G. Krauthamer, “World Survey of Resources and Needs in Brain Research” in Marshall “Early History of IBRO” Neuroscience Volume 72, No. 1, 1996, p. 293-298.
- Doty, “Neuroscience” p. 430.