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Adrian, Edgar Douglas, First Baron Adrian of Cambridge


(b. London, England, 30 November 1889, d. Cambridge, England, 4 August 1977)

physiology, neurophysiology, electroencephalography.

Adrian is noted for extending the all-or-none principle of skeletal muscle action to motor and sensory nerve fibers and advancing experimental electrophysiology through use of the thermionic, triode valve amplifier. With Sir Charles Sherrington, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1932 for discoveries on the functions of the neurons.

Family Background and Education. Adrian was the third and youngest son of Alfred Douglas Adrian, C.B., K.C. (1845–1922), a legal advisor to the British Local Government Board in London, and Flora Lavinia Barton (1858–1935), daughter of Charles Howard Barton (c. 1815–1898), a mathematics master at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. Adrian’s oldest brother, John, died within a few days of his birth in 1886. The second oldest brother, Harold Douglas Adrian (1887–1910), was a gifted classics scholar. The Adrians lived in relative prosperity in London, opposite the entrance to Primrose Hill and near Regent’s Park, where the family often visited the zoo and botanical gardens. In 1903, Edgar Adrian entered Westminster School as a King’s Scholar. In his studies, he benefited from Westminster’s modernized science curriculum and Henry Robert Robertson’s drawing lessons. Adrian entered Trinity College, Cambridge, as a major scholar in natural science in 1908.

At Cambridge, Adrian came under the influence of Keith Lucas, a fellow of Trinity College and a noted physiologist. Lucas directed Adrian’s undergraduate studies, in which Adrian read physics, chemistry, physiology, anatomy, and botany for the Natural Science Tripos, Part I. After taking a First Class in the examination for 1910, he continued to read physiology for Part II, in which he again took a First Class in 1911.

At the end of his first year as an undergraduate, Adrian became a member of Cambridge’s Natural Science Club, where he befriended other distinguished scientists, including surgeon Geoffrey Langdon Keynes and physicist Geoffrey Ingram Taylor (the latter also serving as Adrian’s tutor in physics). Stimulated by papers read in the club, Adrian developed his early ideas about the relevance of new electronic instrumentation for experimental studies of nerve action. Between 1909 and 1914, in 1919, and in 1921, Adrian read various papers to the club, and in 1921, he was elected an honorary member.

Through the influence of Lucas, Adrian entered a circle of eminent physiologists, especially Joseph Barcroft, Walter Morley Fletcher, William Bate Hardy, and Archibald Vivian Hill, all of whom held appointments in Cambridge’s noted Physiological Laboratory, established by Michael Foster in 1883. Most significantly, Adrian learned about Lucas’s experimental work on muscular contraction and nerve impulses, performed in a basement room at the foundation of the Babbage Lecture Theatre. By 1905, Lucas had shown that skeletal muscle fibers obeyed the “all-or-none” principle first established for heart muscle contractions by U.S. physiologist Henry Pickering Bowditch in 1871. This principle holds that, within a single fiber, a threshold exists above which the intensity of a stimulus produces a full-sized mechanical response, but below which it produces no response at all. Although Lucas amassed evidence suggesting that the law might be true for nerve fibers, he failed to demonstrate this definitively and did not explicitly extend the principle to nerves. Adrian’s collaboration with Lucas, begun as early as 1911, encouraged him to deepen this line of research as a postgraduate. Between 1912 and 1914, he published a series of papers in which he provided a generalized statement of the all-or-none principle in motor nerves and reported on a series of experiments concerning the conduction of nerve impulses under a variety of conditions, including periods of enhanced excitability and refractory periods. The merit of his work won Cambridge’s Walsingham Gold Medal for Physiology and a fellowship at Trinity College, which he commenced in 1913.

In addition to his studies, Adrian found recreation in hiking, mountain climbing, fencing, and membership in Trinity’s Lake Hunt, which organized manhunt games in the Lakes District. He was conversant in a broad range of subjects ancillary to his scientific interests, including hypnotism, psychoanalysis, and philosophy. He continued to exercise the artistic skill he developed as a youth and contributed paintings to the Cambridge Post-Impressionist Exhibition of 1913, a well-received showing that Adrian and his friends had actually intended as a hoax.

Having previously met Lucas and Adrian during a visit to Cambridge, the noted Harvard physiologist

Alexander Forbes invited Adrian to spend some time at his laboratory in 1914, but Adrian declined the offer in order to devote himself full-time to completing the requirements for a medical degree. He began his clinical training at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, in the summer of 1914, and within a few weeks he transferred to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, where he completed his studies. Cambridge granted him the M.B. in 1915.

Adrian’s medical degree enabled him to contribute to war–related work in hospitals for the duration of World War I. In this work, he developed techniques of case study from two particularly influential physicians: Sir Francis Martin Rouse Walshe, at the National Hospital, Queen Square, London; and Sir Adolph Abrahams, at the Con-naught Military Hospital, Aldershot. Adrian’s caseloads consisted primarily of patients suffering from neurological injuries and shell shock. From his firsthand experience in treating a variety of such illnesses, he furthered his ideas relating the physiological and psychological bases of neuroses. Lucas, meanwhile, lent his engineering skill to the research staff of the Royal Aircraft Factory at nearby Farn-borough, where Adrian was living. Unfortunately, in October 1916, while carrying out flight tests over the Salisbury Plain, Lucas died in a midair collision. Adrian inherited his teacher’s laboratory, where he utilized the extant apparatus in new experiments that he commenced almost immediately after the war.

Research on Nerve Action through Valve Amplification, 1919–1927. In early 1919, Trinity College appointed Adrian as lecturer in natural science and demonstrator in the Physiological Laboratory. With the war’s conclusion in the summer, he returned to Cambridge to carry out his newly appointed duties—for which an influx of postwar medical undergraduates created a high demand. Students such as Bryan Harold Cabot Matthews and Rachel Eck-hard (who later married), two important collaborators in Adrian’s later research, remembered him as an especially effective lecturer. Within a busy schedule that included heavy teaching and advising loads, a seat on the Trinity College Council (1920–1924), and service in the Physiological Society of London—as secretary (1923–1926), temporary editor (1925), and member of the editorial board (1926–1936)—Adrian furthered his earlier, pre-war research and forged ahead in new areas of inquiry.

Initially, Adrian investigated the character of nerve and muscle fiber responses to excitation, resulting in a series of publications that showed interesting correlations between levels of acidity, the time course of electric charge, and refractory periods. His measurements relied on Lucas’s electrical instruments, but limitations in the technology hampered Adrian’s ability to detect and interpret minute electrical impulses. He thus turned to improving the amplification of recording circuits, a problem of considerable interest to the entire physiological field. In 1921, the Cambridge Scientific Instruments Company (CSI) designed a new string galvanometer, and Adrian then invited Forbes to collaborate with him in research employing the new recording device. Upon Forbes’s arrival in the summer, the team utilized a single-stage triode amplifier with the CSI string galvanometer to record sensory nerve impulses. Their observations enabled them to extend the all-or-none principle to the sensory nerves. Forbes’s visit initiated a close friendship with Adrian that lasted until Forbes’s death in 1965.

Following the success of the 1921 research, Adrian desired even higher amplification than was possible with the single-stage valve. By early 1925, he wrote to Herbert Spencer Gasser and H. S. Newcomer to request details about a three-stage, thermionic valve amplifier, a device they used to amplify electrical impulses in order to record action potentials in the phrenic nerve. A redesign of the amplifier by W. G. Pye and Company of Cambridge enabled Adrian to amplify natural impulses by 1,850 times, as opposed to the mere 560 times that the one-stage amplifier had achieved. He used his design of the three-stage valve with Lucas’s capillary electrometer to record impulses in frog-leg nerve-muscle preparations. While attempting to establish a stable baseline, he unexpectedly encountered oscillating signals that he initially regarded as aberrations. In the process of making adjustments, he noted that the preparation produced oscillations when the muscle was allowed to hang from the frog’s knee joint but that, when supported on a glass plate, it produced a stable baseline. This detection of neural signals sent by the muscle spindles through the nerve fibers represented a major breakthrough in amplification and opened up entirely new lines of electrophysiological research.

In 1925 and 1926, with initial assistance from Sybil Cooper and then critical assistance from Yngve Zotterman, a recent medical graduate visiting from Switzerland, Adrian succeeded in isolating a single nerve spindle and showed that electrical impulses do not vary regardless of their stimuli, that their frequency conveys the intensity of sensation, and that the type of nerves in action convey the quality. Physiologists have come to understand the so-called frequency code of sensation as an essential characteristic of nerve action that is fundamentally important to the scientific understanding of the functioning of nervous systems. In collaboration with Detlev Wulf Bronk, an American biophysicist, in 1928 Adrian showed similar features to motor nerve action: only one kind of nerve impulse is present, and the force of contraction—like the intensity of sensation—varies by the frequency of the nerve impulses and the number of fibers present.

Research on the Brain, Limb Movement, and Sensory Organs, 1926–1959. As with Bronk, from 1926 onward, Adrian often collaborated with other researchers in illuminating further physiological facts. His most important collaborations involved work on the optic nerve with Rachel Eckhard Matthews, electrical waves in the brain’s sensory cortex with Bryan Matthews, and nerve action in the pyramidal tracts (between the motor cortex and spinal cord) responsible for the movement of the limbs. He summarized the main conclusions of his investigations regarding sensation, nerve action, and perception in three important monographs that are based on lectures: The Basis of Sensation (1928),The Mechanism of Nervous Action (1932), and The Physical Background of Perception(1946). These are short summaries of his research appearing in articles presented for more general audiences, with comments on the state of each field.

Adrian continued to favor his three-stage triode amplifier and capillary electrometer system until Bryan Matthews designed a moving-iron oscillograph that proved more effective in recording small electrical impulses occurring rapidly in succession of each other. A couple of Matthews’s innovations in electrical recording equipment enabled Adrian—in collaboration with Matthews and, later, with Katsusaburo Yamagiwa—to expand upon Hans Berger’s observations of rhythmic electrical oscillations emanating from the human head. In the mid-1930s, Adrian and his colleagues showed that the rhythm of 10 oscillations per second was developed in the occipital and parietal regions of the cortex and that the overriding condition for its production is the subject’s visual inattentiveness. Their expansion upon Berger’s work helped to found electroencephalography (EEG) as a clinical specialty. Although use of the electroencephalograph in diagnoses of brain conditions was received with some controversy, it has served as an important diagnostic tool for epilepsy and several kinds of encephalitis.

From the late 1930s onward, Adrian attacked a wide range of topics in his research that treated various aspects of the nervous system as a whole. He made pioneering advances in research on the sense of smell, particularly the contributions of specific receptors in stimulating mitral units of the olfactory organ. Moreover, he argued that smells could be categorized based on spatial and temporal maps of excitation and specific receptor contributions, a schematic that has guided posthumous research on the subject.

Adrian’s research career effectively ended in 1958 after a disastrous flood, caused by a water leak in an upstairs room, ruined his laboratory. In his seventieth year, he was not inclined to start over with new equipment. He continued, however, to lecture and publish on topics in neurophysiology, science education and policy, and science biography until his death.

Appointments and Family Life. Adrian was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1923; he was later appointed Foulerton Research Professor (1929–1937), foreign secretary (1946–1950), and president (1950–1955). He received the society’s Royal Medal in 1934 and Copley Medal in 1946. He was also president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1954 and of the Royal Society of Medicine (1960–1962), receiving that society’s Gold Medal in 1950. He was elected to Britain’s prestigious Order of Merit in 1942.

At Cambridge, he was appointed to a university lectureship in 1920. In 1937, he succeeded Sir Joseph Bar-croft as professor of physiology, a chair he retained until 1951. In that year, he became master of Trinity College, a post he held until 1965. Near the conclusion of his research career, he accepted further administrative posts, including president (1955) and chancellor (1957–1971) of the University of Leicester and vice-chancellor (1957–1967) and chancellor (1968–1975) of the University of Cambridge. He also served as trustee of the Rockefeller Institute (later Rockefeller University) in New York (1962–1965) and, for many years, as the governor of his elementary school, Westminster School.

Early in his Cambridge career, at a gathering hosted by CSI chairman Horace Darwin, Adrian met Hester Agnes Pinsent, daughter of Hume Chancellor Pinsent, a solicitor, and Dame Ellen Frances Parker Pinsent, a pioneer and promoter of mental health services. The couple married on 14 June 1923. Like her mother, Hester Adrian advanced the mental health field, and she led penal reform efforts. She was made a dame of the British Empire (D.B.E.) in 1965. She enjoyed hiking with her husband during the holidays, until a climbing accident in the Lake District in 1942 required her right leg to be amputated above the knee. The Adrians had two daughters, Jennet and Anne, and a son, Richard Hume, who shared in his father’s interests and enjoyed a noted career in physiology. In 1955, Edgar was created Baron Adrian of Cambridge, one of the last hereditary titles granted in England. Because his son Richard’s marriage produced no heir, the title became extinct in 1995. The motto on the family’s coat of arms was derived from a quote by Quintus Cicero, Non temere credere (“Do not believe rashly”).

Adrian’s international acclaim was accompanied by many awards and memberships in foreign academies. With Charles Sherrington he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1932 for cumulative research clarifying the function of the neuron. He received the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in 1956. He was part of a scientific delegation to visit Russia in 1945; nearly a decade later (1953–1954) he was Banting Lecturer at the University of Toronto, where he participated in the opening of the Charles H. Best Institute of Physiology in September 1953. He was elected to fellowships, honorary memberships, and foreign, corresponding, or associate memberships in dozens of academies that included prestigious societies in Europe, North America, and Latin America. He received no fewer than twenty-nine honorary doctoral degrees from universities around the world.

Adrian’s Nobel Prize banquet speech established his reputation as an eloquent ceremonial speaker. His professional colleagues particularly remembered the many impressive speeches he delivered while holding leadership offices of scientific societies. After being raised to the peerage, he regularly sat in the House of Lords and spoke effectively on scientific policy concerns, nuclear disarmament, and use of chemical and biological weapons.

Following his wife’s sudden death in 1965, Adrian moved back into Trinity College, where he lived in a set of corner rooms in Nevile’s Court. His own health began to decline in 1975. He spent his final two weeks under the care of the Evelyn Nursing Home in Cambridge, where he died.


A complete bibliography of Adrian’s works may be found in Hodgkin, Biographical Memoirs of Fellow of the Royal Society (1979), pp. 68–73. Major collections of Adrian’s scientific, personal, and administrative papers are at Trinity College Library, Cambridge. Significant collections of Adrian’s correspondence may be found in archives at the Medical Research Council, London; Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Boston; Woodson Research Center, Rice University; Nuffield College Library, Oxford; Churchill Archives Center, Cambridge; Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, Cambridge University Library; and Trinity College Library, Cambridge.


The Basis of Sensation: The Action of the Sense Organs. New York: W. W. Norton, 1928.

The Mechanism of Nervous Action: Electrical Studies of theNeurone. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1932.

The Physical Background of Perception, Being the WaynfleteLectures Delivered in the College of St. Mary Magdalen, Oxford, in the Hilary Term, 1946. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946.

“Memorable Experiences in Research.” Diabetes 3, no. 1 (1954):17–18.


Bradley, John Kirkham, and Elizabeth M. Tansey. “The Coming of the Electronic Age to the Cambridge Physiological Laboratory: E. D. Adrian’s Valve Amplifier in 1921.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 50, no. 2 (1996): 217–228.

Brazier, Mary. “The Historical Development of Neurophysiology.” In Handbook of Physiology. Section 1: Neurophysiology, edited by John Field, H. W. Magoun, and Victor E. Hall, pp. 1–58. Washington, DC: American Physiological Society, 1959.

Frank, Robert Gregg, Jr. “Instruments, Nerve Action, and the All-or-None Principle.” Osiris 9 (1994): 208–235.

Fulton, John Farquhar. “Historical Reflections on the Backgrounds of Neurophysiology: Inhibition, Excitation, and Integration of Activity.” In The Historical Development of Physiological Thought, edited by Chandler M. Brooks and P. F. Cranefield. New York: Hafner, 1959.

Hill, Archibald Vivian. The Ethical Dilemma of Science andOther Writings. New York: Rockefeller Institute Press, 1960.

Hodgkin, Sir Alan Lloyd. “Chance and Design in Electrophysiology: An Informal Account of Certain Experiments on Nerve Carried Out between 1934 and 1952.” In The Pursuit of Nature, edited by Alan L. Hodgkin. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

——. “Edgar Douglas Adrian, Baron Adrian of Cambridge.” Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 25 (1979): 1–79.

Keynes, S. “A Cambridge Hoax: The Post-Impressionist Exhibition of 1913.” Cambridge Review 109 (1987): 116–124.

O’Connor, W. J. Founders of British Physiology: A Biographical Dictionary, 1820–1885. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1988.

Shepherd, G. M., and Janice Brown. “The Peak of Electrochemical Experiments in Physiology: A Unique View through Walter Miles’ ‘Report of a Visit to Foreign Laboratories’ in 1920.” Caduceus 5 (1989): 1–84.

Tansey, Elizabeth M. “Charles Sherrington, E. D. Adrian, and Henry Dale: The Cambridge Physiological Laboratory and the Physiology of the Nervous System.” In Cambridge Scientific Minds, edited by Peter Harman and Simon Mitton, pp. 187–201. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Tasaki, Ichiji. “Conduction of the Nerve Impulse.” In Handbook of Physiology. Section 1: Neurophysiology, edited by John Field, H. W. Magoun and Victor E. Hall, pp. 75–121. Washington, DC: American Physiological Society, 1959.

Zotterman, Yngve. “Neurophysiology in the Nineteen Twenties.” The Rockefeller Institute Review 2, no. 4 (1964): 1–4.

Donald L. Opitz

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