Francis Gotch was appointed as Waynflete Professor of Physiology in 1905. He made several pioneering contributions to British neurophysiology, including demonstrating that the mammalian brain is capable of producing electric current.
Francis Gotch © Wikipedia
J.S. Haldane and C.G. Douglas, who worked together in the Oxford Laboratory of Physiology, led an expedition to Pike’s Peak, Colorado in 1911, to examine the effect of low atmospheric pressure on respiration.
Haldane (left) © Wikipedia, and Douglas (right) © Oxford University Images
They stayed at the summit house of Pike’s Peak (14,110 feet above sea level), in which they built a laboratory, and investigated the process of acclimatisation of breathing to high altitude oxygen levels. The researchers would conduct exercise studies on a steep slope that formed part of the railway track up to the summit. Indeed, Haldane was particularly famous for intrepid self-experimentation.
The lab in the Pike's Peak summit house (left) and the researchers performing experiments on the steep slope leading up to the summit (right)
As well as two American researchers, there was a fifth member on the expedition, Mabel Fitzgerald. She was not allowed to stay at the summit house with the male researchers, but instead travelled Colorado’s mining towns to conduct research on the breathing of mining town residents over a range of altitudes. From this research, Fitzgerald famously demonstrated that it is oxygen, and not carbon dioxide, that determines how hard we breathe and sets the haemoglobin concentration in our blood.
The Pike’s Peak expedition group (left) and Mabel Fitzgerald (right)
In 1913, Sir Charles Scott Sherrington was appointed Waynflete Professor of Physiology; Charles was recommended for the chair unanimously without any other candidates being considered. He said of Oxford that its real function in the world “is to teach…what is not yet known”.
Charles Sherrington © Wellcome Trust
Whilst at Oxford, Sherrington kept hundreds of microscope slides in a specially constructed box labelled Sir Charles Sherrington’s Histology Demonstration Slides, which has been preserved and is kept in the Department today. Sherrington received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1932; prior to this it was widely accepted that reflexes occurred as an isolated activity within a reflex arc, but instead Sherrington showed that reflexes require integrated activation and demonstrated reciprocal innervation of muscles, a principle now known as Sherrington's Law. Sherrington transformed modern neurophysiology, and neuroscience has continued as one of the major strengths in physiology here in the Department. Sherrington was doctoral adviser to John Eccles, the neurophysiologist who was also awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, in 1963, for his work on the synapse.
Sherrington’s Slides box (left) and a painting of Sherrington and Eccles (right), which hangs in the Department today
In 1934, W.E. Le Gros Clark accepted an invitation to fill the chair of Dr Lee’s Professorship in Anatomy, a position which he held until his retirement. That same year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society for his work on primate evolution. He was also interested in the anatomy of the brain and in particular the anatomy of colour vision. Le Gros Clark had a profound influence on the teaching of anatomy at Oxford, changing it from the routine repetition of the minute details of anatomy to a study of function and its relevance to cell biology and embryology. Like Sherrington, Le Gros Clark kept microscope slides of the central nervous system in a box. The building that housed the Department of Anatomy from 1893 is now named after Le Gros Clark.
W.E. Le Gros Clark (left) © National Portrait Gallery, and Le Gros Clark's Slides box (right)
John Mellanby was appointed as Waynflete Professor of Physiology in 1936. His most important work dealt with the proteins of the blood, coagulation and the secretion of the pancreas.
John Mellanby © Wikipedia
Edward George Tandy Liddell took up the position of the next Waynflete Professor of Physiology in 1940.
Edward George Tandy Liddell
Liddell was a student of Sherrington’s, and worked with him on the classical discovery of reflexes. He oversaw the move of the Laboratory of Physiology to the Sherrington Building in 1953, where it is still housed today. To view more pictures of the building from when it was first built, click here.
The Sherrington Building plan from 1948
The Old Physiology Building became The Genetics Laboratory, which was knocked down in the early 21st century.
The old Genetics Laboratory
In 1950, Marianne Fillenz joined the Laboratory of Physiology as a DPhil Student, and later became a lecturer and demonstrator. She was one of the first people to use and develop the technique of voltammetry to measure catecholamine release deep in the brain and her technique of linear sweep voltammetry to measure dopamine release in the rat striatum in still much in use today.
Marianne Fillenz: enjoying some free time (left) and working hard in the lab (right)
On the 6th May 1954, Sir Roger Bannister carried out a surgical operation in London in the morning, sharpened his racing spikes in the hospital, took a train from Paddington Station to Oxford, and then walked to Iffley Road Track, nervous about the weather conditions that afternoon, given he was about to run a race. But it was at that race that he became the first person to complete a mile run in under four minutes. Bannister had worked within the Laboratory of Physiology on many occasions, in the field of autonomic failure, and published more than eighty papers.
Bannister breaking the world record (left) and Bannister working working in the Laboratory of Physiology (right)
George Lindor Brown was elected Waynflete Professor of Physiology in 1960. Brown had worked in Sherrington’s lab with Eccles in the 1930s. He was part of the group that established the theory of chemical transmission, namely that excitation is transmitted from particular types of nerves to their target structures not by electric currents, but by the release of a chemical transmitter, acetylcholine.
George Lindor Brown © National Portrait Gallery
In 1968, David Whitteridge took up the Waynflete Chair of Physiology. Whitteridge had also worked in Sherrington’s lab with Eccles on the operation of the motor cortex in primates. Upon returning to Oxford as Waynflete Professor, Whitteridge began valuable research on the processing of binocular depth information in the visual cortex.
In the early 20th century, women could not be officially enrolled at the University of Oxford, so it wasn’t until 1972, when Mabel Fitzgerald was 100 years old, that she received an honourary MA from the University, in recognition of the work she had conducted whilst at Oxford.
Mabel Fitzgerald receiving her degree
Colin Blakemore was appointed Waynflete Professor of Physiology in 1979. Blakemore established that the mammalian brain is ‘plastic’, that is, it has the capacity to reorganise itself as a result of the pattern of activity passing through its connections. After stroke or other forms of brain injury, reorganisation of this sort can help the process of recovery, as other parts of the brain take over the function of the damaged part.
Colin Blakemore © National Portrait Gallery
In 1984, Ray Guillery was appointed Dr Lee’s Professor of Anatomy. He is best known for his discovery that in Siamese cats with certain genotypes of the albino gene, the wiring of the optic chiasm is disrupted, with less of the nerve-crossing than is normal.
Ray Guillery © FENS
The geneticist Professor Dame Kay Davies was appointed Dr Lee’s Professor of Anatomy in 1998, establishing significant expertise in genetics within the Department of Anatomy. Davies’ research has an international reputation from work on Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD); she developed a test which allowed for the screening of fetuses whose mothers have a high risk of carrying DMD.
Kay Davies © National Portrait Gallery