Measuring the energy of nervous impulses: the friendship (1911-1950) of Hill and Meyerhof and the emergence of neurochemistry

Arshad M. KHAN
Neuroscience Research Institute, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California USA
arshadk AT

The long-term purpose of this project is to trace the historical developments surrounding the collaborative friendship of two scientists, and how this collaboration, though primarily focused on muscle physiology, helped to contribute to our present day understanding of the energetics of nerve cell conduction.

In 1922, Otto Fritz Meyerhof of Kiel and Archibald Vivian Hill of London shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their contributions to muscle physiology1. These achievements were the culmination of a collaboration and friendship that began in 1911, when Meyerhof first exchanged correspondence with Hill2, and which persisted through and past the First World War. Although Hill and Meyerhof are best known for their work on muscle preparations, comparatively less attention has been given — in published historical accounts of neurochemistry3 — of their great influence on the development of nerve cell energetics. Some of these influences, which begin after the First World War, involved the training of new scientists. Two examples are described below.

  1. In 1926, Ralph W. Gerard joined A. V. Hill’s laboratory. There, he participated in the classic experiments of Hill that demonstrated, for the first time, the production of heat by nerves. Gerard made the seminal discovery that there is a delayed heat production following a period of nerve stimulation4. In 1927, Gerard moved to Meyerhof’s laboratory in Berlin, where he measured the O2 consumed by a segment of nerve at rest and during stimulation5. Hill and Meyerhof allowed Gerard to publish as sole author on these key studies. Gerard’s own laboratory later made great contributions to our understanding of nerve cell energetics, as exemplified by their development of the capillary microelectrode (in the late 1940s), which was later adapted by Hodgkin, Eccles and Huxley to their preparations of nerve and muscle.
  2. In 1958, Bernard C. Abbott, working in A. V. Hill’s laboratory, first reported the heat produced by a single action potential at 0°C. Abbott, together with another Hill lab colleague, J. Murdoch Ritchie, went on to develop robust research programs in biophysics, energetics and neurochemistry in the U.S.

The poster presentation accompanying this abstract includes excerpts from the later correspondence of Hill to Meyerhof during and after the Second World War, oral history source material regarding Bernard Abbott and A. V. Hill, and rare photographs of Meyerhof, Hill and Hill’s students, including Bernard Katz. Material is also presented which provides insight about the impact of the Second World War on these scientists’ personal lives and careers, including the flight of Meyerhof from Nazi Germany and occupied France.


  2. see Hill, A.V. (1950) A Challenge to Biochemists, In: (D. Nachmansohn, ed.) Metabolism and Function: A Collection of Papers Dedicated to Otto Meyerhof on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, pp. 4-11. New York: Elsevier.
  3. for example, Tower DB (1951) Neurochem Res 16:1085-1097; McIlwain (1985) J Neurochem 45:1-10; Bachelard (1993) J Neurochem 61 (Suppl):S287-S307.
  4. Gerard RW (1927) J Physiol (Lond.):62:349-363.
  5. Gerard RW (1927) Science 66:495-499.
  6. Abbott BC, Hill AV, Howarth JV (1958) Proc R Soc (Lond), Ser B 148:149-187.

The author is grateful to Nancy R. Miller, Public Records Archivist at the University Archives Center, University of Pennsylvania, for providing access to A. V. Hill’s correspondence with O. Meyerhof, and is indebted to Pauline and Doris Abbott for graciously providing interviews to the author, as well as photographs from the late Bernard Abbott’s personal collection. Finally, the author thanks Dr. Chien-Ping Ko for valuable discussions, and Dr. Alan G. Watts and Dr. Larry W. Swanson for guidance and support.

Poster Session
Saturday, 23 June 2007, 9:30 - 10:30 am

12th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences   (ISHN)
Los Angeles, California, USA, 19-23 June 2007