Georg von Békésy
Nobel Prize lecture (1961) for work in the Department of Psychology
The only Nobel Prize awarded to a scientist for work in the Department of Psychology at Harvard went to a biophysicist who had spent much of his early career working for the Hungarian Telephone and Post Office Laboratory on the design of telephone earpieces. Beginning in 1928, Georg von Békésy, originally trained in chemistry, devoted himself to one of the great unsolved problems in sensory physiology: how the inner ear converts vibrations into neural impulses. It was an enormously challenging problem because the cochlea is a tiny, complex, delicate structure encased in one of the hardest bones in the body.
After a short stint at the Karolinksa Institute in Sweden, von Békésy was brought to Harvard after World War II by S. S. Stevens, and in the Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory von Békésy engaged in many years of solitary, painstaking dissection and experiments. Physiologists had assumed that the tapering basilar membrane running the length of the cochlea was a bit like a harp, with elastic fibers of different length held under tension and resonating to different frequencies of sound. von Békésy disproved that with the simple move of slitting the exposed membrane lengthwise and observing that the membrane was not stretched apart by the incision, but lay there intact. Other experiments involved sprinkling the transparent membrane with silver flakes and taking stroboscopic photographs of its motion as oscillations were applied to one end. von Békésy discovered that sound vibrations transmitted to the cochlear fluid by the round window triggered a traveling wave along the length of the basilar membrane, and that because of the tapering shape of the membrane, the point of maxim amplitude varied with the fundamental frequency of the vibration. This was the basis for tonotopic or place coding, in which the hair cells showing the greatest response coded for the fundamental frequency of the sound. von Békésy built a large mechanical model of the inner ear to explain and confirm his hypothesis of how it coded sound. The only thing he could not duplicate was the nerve supply, so he simulated it by placing his own arm along a long vibrating section. His 1961 Nobel Prize lecture was called “Concerning the Pleasures of Observing, and the Mechanics of the Inner Ear.”
von Békésy, faced with mandatory retirement in 1966, moved to the University of Hawaii, where he continued his research, and developed an extensive collection of ancient art, until his death in 1972.
Georg von Békésy. Pacific Biosciences Research Center, University of Hawaii at Manoa. Retrieved from http://www5.pbrc.hawaii.edu/bekesy/.
Georg von Békésy: The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1961. Retrieved from http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1961/bekesy-bio.html.