Erlanger-Gasser Lecture History

Erlanger and Gasser:
From Teacher and Student to Collaborators in Research

In 1910, at the age of 36, Joseph Erlanger was invited by Washington University to head the Department of Physiology in the newly reorganized School of Medicine. He had received his M.D. from Johns Hopkins in 1899, after which he became a member of the faculty in Physiology there. Six years later, he became Professor of Physiology at the University of Wisconsin. In 1909, a 21-year-old student named Herbert Gasser took a number of courses at the medical school at Wisconsin, one of which was Erlanger’s course in Physiology. This was so different from what he had expected that he described it as a “revelation.” Gasser went to Johns Hopkins to complete his medical studies and returned to Wisconsin as an Instructor in Pharmacology.

Soon after the new buildings at Washington University were ready for occupancy, Erlanger invited Gasser to join his department. During his first year in St. Louis, the United States entered the first World War; he and Erlanger collaborated in war-related studies on shock. When the war was over, and Gasser returned from a brief period in Washington, they developed a new collaboration in studies on fundamental properties of nerve.

While Erlanger had already done important work on the spread of excitation in the heart, Gasser had yet to find his research interest. The problem of recording nerve activity was a topic of discussion between them. The technical impasse was the need to amplify the small potentials which could be recorded from nerve and to have a recording device fast enough to follow the rapid changes. Newcomer, a classmate of Gasser at Johns Hopkins with a background in physics, had built an amplifier using vacuum tubes which he brought to St. Louis. He and Gasser recorded the action potentials of the phrenic nerve using a string galvanometer, but this device had too much inertia to follow the potential changes with fidelity. The cathode ray or Braun tube was known to have the requisite speed but required very large voltages to deflect the electron beam. Gasser learned that Western Electric had developed a cathode ray tube with a heated cathode that had much greater sensitivity. With the gain available from Newcomer’s amplifier, the potentials from peripheral nerve could now be recorded with fidelity.

Erlanger and Gasser built and assembled the requisite equipment for stimulation and recording. With it they investigated the characteristics of conduction nerve axons. Together with George Bishop, who subsequently joined in the work, they determined the speed of conduction in nerve fibers and its relation to axonal diameter, the independence of action potentials, in individual nerve fibers, the time course of the individual action potentials, the refractory period after an action potential and a host of other properties which are fundamental to our understanding of nerve physiology. It is amazing to think that for several years the only electrophysiological equipment in the world employing a cathode ray oscilloscope was in the basement of the South Building of this Medical School.

In 1921, at the age of 33, Gasser was made Head of the Department of Pharmacology at Washington University. Abraham Flexner arranged for him to spend two years visiting laboratories in Europe. Following this interruption, he rejoined Erlanger and Bishop. They were very successful in reconstructing the compound action potential from the fiber diameter spectrum, their values for action potential size and duration, and assuming a linear relation between axon diameter and conduction velocity. In 1944, Erlanger and Gasser were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for these studies.

In 1932, Gasser moved to New York as chairman of the Department of Physiology at Cornell Medical School. Three years later, he was appointed Director of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, a post he held until his retirement in 1953. He then returned to the laboratory and again turned his attention to peripheral nerve. During these years, he made important discoveries on unmyelinated nerve axons. He died in 1963.

Erlanger remained as Head of Physiology at Washington University until 1946. He continued working on problems of peripheral nerve including excitation, effects of polarization and repetitive firing of axons. In addition to research, he contributed much as an administrator and teacher. A founding member of the Executive Faculty, he played a large role in the building of the modern Washington University School of Medicine. He died in 1965.

Erlanger-Gasser Lecturers

1990 Stanley Cohen, Ph.D., Vanderbilt University
1991 George E. Palade, M.D., University of California San Diego
1992 Sir Andrew Huxley, O.M., F.R.S., Trinity College, Cambridge
1993 Bert Sakmann, M.D., Max-Planck Institute
1994 Edwin G. Krebs, M.D., University of Washington
1995 Gunter Blobel, M.D., Ph.D., Rockefeller University
1996 Alfred G. Gilman, M.D., Ph.D., University of Texas, Southwestern
1998 Gerald D. Fischbach, M.D., National Institutes of Health
2000 Floyd E. Bloom, M.D., Scripps Research Institute
2002 Clay M. Armstrong, M.D., University of Pennsylvania
2003 Wolfhard Almers, Ph.D., Vollum Institute, OHSU
2004 Anton J. Berns, Ph.D., The Netherlands Cancer Institute
2006 Thomas D. Pollard, M.D., Yale University
2008 Carol W. Greider, Ph.D., The Johns Hopkins University
2009 Pietro De Camilli, M.D., Yale University
2010 Tony Hunter, Ph.D., Salk Institute
2011 Gregory Hannon, Ph.D., Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
2012 Ronald D. Vale, Ph.D., University of California, San Francisco
2013 Michael P. Sheetz, Ph.D., Columbia University
2014 Peter C. Agre, M.D., Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute
2016 Robert A. Weinberg, Ph.D., Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, MIT