Ukhtomsky, Alexei Alexeivich

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(b. Rhurik, Russia, 20 September 1875; d. Leningrad, U.S.S.R., 31 August 1942)


Ukhtomsky was descended from an ancient princely line whose name sprang from the Ukhtoma river that flowed through their ancestral domain in Rhurik in the province of Yaroslav. After receiving his secondary education at the military college in Nizhny Novgorod (now Gorki), he enlisted in the army as a cadet. Moved by strong religious beliefs, Ukhtomsky resigned from the army to enter the Moscow Theological Academy at Zagorsk. There was little inkling then of a future career in science; theology, church history, psychology, philosophy, and rhetoric absorbed his attention. In this religious climate he developed an intense interest in the faith of the Old Believers, Orthodox Church. The group held tenaciously to the ritualistic practices that had been abandoned during Patriarch Nikon’s reforms in the seventeeth century.

During a pilgrimage to visit their monasteries, he visited Tyumen, Siberia, where he met Rasputin. Ukhtomsky later invited him to St. Petersburg and introduced him into the religious salons of the aristocracy.

In 1902 Ukhtomsky, influenced by Wedensky, entered the University of St. Petersburg. Making a complete change, he entered the physico-mathematical faculty and specialized in animal physiology under Wedensky. He first studied the effects of anemia, oxygen lack, and fatigue on neuromuscular preparations.

After graduating from the university, he took a postgraduate course and soon became assistant in the physiological department, demonstrating experiments for the lecturers. During this time he carried out research with Wedensky on“The Reflexes of Antagonistic Muscles to Electrical Stimulation of a Sensory Nerve.”

It was while working as a demonstrator that he stumbled on the phenomenon that led to his theory of a dominant focus of cortical excitation operating to exclude and inhibit other concurrent functions. He had to prepare for the class an experiment on electrical stimulation of the motor cortex of the dog. To his dismay, stimulation produced no movement, even when he increased the strength of the current. Suddenly the dog defecated, and immediately following this, cortical stimulation once again produced a motor response.

Ukhtomsky was so struck by this observation that he put it to experimental investigation and made it the subject of his thesis“On the Dependence of Cortical Motor Effects on Secondary Central Influences,”which he defended for a master’s degree in 1912. This was his last laboratory work and for the remaining thirty years of his life he made no further experiments, but in this thesis was incorporated the main theme of all Ukhtomsky’s future concepts, namely the principle of“dominanta.”This term appeared in 1923 in the title of the first of his many publications on the subject.

On gaining his master’s degree he was appointed a docent in physiology, responsible for lectruing on such subjects as the physiology of the sense organs and of the central nervous system. In all his scientific teaching he upheld the tenets of the Wedensky school. His broad education in history and philosophy and his wide knowledge of the physiological literature made him a fine lecturer, but he did not refrain, even in the laboratory, from trying, often successfully, to convert his pupils to his religious faith. He was kind and generous to impecunious students, often gaining help for them through his position as churchwarden at St. Nicholas, the Old Believers’ church in St. Petersburg.

Ukhtomsky relinquished none of his religious observances. In 1912 he attended the All-Russian Old Believer Congress, at which he reported on“The Splendor of Church Singing.”He observd all the religious rites both at home and in the laboratory; during Lent he came to the lecture room carrying a rosary of leather beads and wearing a black wooden cross around his neck.

Simple in tastes, he lived in a two-room flat surrounded by books. Many were physiological texts (some were library books that he could not bring himself to part with), and others were rare, old, handwritten religious books. Even when, in 1922, he was appointed to the chair in physiology and could have afforded more comfortable living quarters, he preferred to remain in his small flat. He never married but lived alone, reading and drawing icons of the Old Believer pattern. He chose to dress as a rich peasant–wearing hunting boots, a coarse jacket, and underclothes made from linen woven by the peasants. He wore his hair long in moujik fashion and, by religious observance, never shaved his beard.

During the October Revolution he was arrested and imprisoned. His many friends at the University of Petrograd appealed on his behalf and he was freed. He was reinstated, and on the death of Wedensky in 1922 succeeded to the chair in physiology. As head of the department he began to develop his own ideas of central nervous system function. He spoke vaguely of processes that could not be observed experimentally, such as“the learning of a rhythm”by nerve cells, nerve endings, and muscles; of“constellations and excitations”; of“active rest”; and so on. His followers, recognizing his brilliance at the same time that they recognized his failings as an experimental scientist, strove to advance his philosophical views by presenting them as close to those of dialectical materialism, and indeed his report to the All-Russian Physiological Congress was published, not in a physiological journal, but in a philosophical one, the Pod Znamenem Marxisma.

Ukhtomsky remained in favor and became a member of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R. and was honored by having the Ukhtomsky Institute of Physiology in Leningrad University named for him.

Known principally for his concept of dominanta, Ukhtomsky’s ideas evolved substantially from his academic pedigree. Sechenov (1829-1905) had discovered that inhibition could be an active process in the nervous system (not merely a suppression or occlusion of excitation). His pupil Wedensky developed further the ideas of excitation and inhibition, and his pupil’s pupil Ukhtomsky derived his unified theory of dominanta. Sechenov held that all forms of activity of the central nervous system were derivatives of the simplest act–the reflex. He envisioned three main links in the reflex: (1) stimulation of sensory receptors, (2) action of a reflex center, and (3) excitation of the effector systems (muscles and glands). It was the second of these that Ukhtomsky developed into the concept of dominanta.

The rhythm of the respiratory movements and the reciprocal innervation of limb muscles were two of the outstanding physiological systems that suggested a central control mechanism, one which Ukhtomsky envisaged as ensembles of excitation and of inhibition responsible for these rhythmic activations. Both he and Wedensky attempted to apply this principle to the nerves themselves, calling this“the rhythm of nerves”.

An important feature of the concept of dominance was the lability by which the controlling nerve center could establish new functional connections between various centers, ensuring a specific reaction of the central nervous system to the particular stimulation it received (a concept one meets again in Pavlovian theories of conditioned reflexes). In other words, the balance of excitation and inhibition in a system was labile and not an automatism. This broke away from the automatic alternation previously conceived as operating in reciprocal innervation as described by Sherrington.

The concept that in the West was to develop into the recognition of homeostasis was called by Ukhtomsky“rest”or“balance.”He envisaged it as the goal of a biological system following any stimulation or disturbance. His ideas along these lines extended into metabolism and the phenomena of fatigue states.

During the siege of Leningrad in World War II, Ukhtomsky’s institute was evacuated to Saratov on the Volga, but he remained in the city. He studied shock in the wounded and continued his activities at the university. Suffering already from incipient cancer of the throat, chronic hypertension, and gangrene in his legs, his death was hastened by starvation and, on 31 August 1942, he died.


The complete works of Ukhtomsky have been published in Sobranie Sochineny (“Collected Works”), 5 vols. (Leningrad, 1945-1954). An English trans. by D. B. Lindsley is being prepared by the American Psychological Association.

Mary A. B. Brazier