Adrian, Edgar Douglas, first Baron Adrian 1889-1977, physiologist and Nobel prize-winner, was born in London 30 November 1889, the youngest of three sons (there were no daughters) of Alfred Douglas Adrian, civil servant, and his wife, Flora Lavinia, daughter of Charles Howard Barton. His eldest brother lived for only a few days, while the other, Harold, who showed great promise, died at the age of twenty-two. In 1903 Adrian went as a day-boy and King's scholar to Westminster School. He started in classics, but read books on science and moved to the modern side in 1906, two years before he left. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, as a major scholar in natural sciences in 1908 and was placed in the first class in part i of the natural sciences tripos (1910) and in part ii (1911); in part i he read physics, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, and botany (most candidates took only three subjects) and in part ii he studied physiology. Adrian was also known for his skill in roof-climbing and obtained a half blue in fencing, a sport which may have been responsible for the rapid darting movement that characterized his work in the laboratory, or his method of preparing meals in the kitchen at home. While at Cambridge, he acquired a taste for hill-walking and mountaineering which remained with him all his life.
On the academic side, Adrian was most influenced by his Trinity supervisor, Keith Lucas [qv.] a young physiologist of great distinction, who died in an aeroplane accident at Farnborough in 1916. Adrian first collaborated with Lucas and then continued on his own in a study of the nerve impulse, which won him a fellowship at Trinity College in 1913. At that time the Cambridge school of physiology was at the height of its fame, but housed deplorably. In a memoir on Lucas, Adrian has left an amusing account of the way in which Lucas, (Sir) F. G. Hopkins [qv.], A. V. Hill [qv.], (Sir) J. Barcroft [qv.], (Sir) W. M. Fletcher [qv.], (Sir) W. B. Hardy [qv.], G. R. Mines, and other distinguished scientists were crowded together into cellar rooms which were flooded so easily that the inhabitants had to walk about on duckboards. In addition, A side door led to a dark chamber in which all the frogs were kept and beyond this was the centrifuge driven by a large gas engine of obsolete design which shook the building and added the smell of warm oil and half-burnt gas to that of frog and rat.
Some months before the war, Adrian decided to abandon research for a few years in order to complete his medical degree. He began clinical training at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, in the summer of 1914 and started in earnest at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in July 1914. He qualified after only about a year's clinical work, which, like his part i first in five subjects, remains something of a record. After acquiring a medical degree he worked on nerve injuries and shell-shock, first at the National Hospital, Queen Square, and later at the Connaught Military Hospital in Aldershot where he remained until the end of the war, in spite of strenuous efforts to get to France. Later, Adrian wrote that he owed his interest in clinical neurology to Sir Francis Walshe [qv.] and to Sir Adolph Abrahams. Another major influence must have been Dr L. R. Yealland of Queen Square with whom he collaborated in very successful treatment of badly shell-shocked patients. During the years that Adrian worked at Aldershot he lived at Chudleigh with a group of scientists from the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough. These included F. W. Aston [qv.], F. A. Lindemann (later Viscount Cherwell) [qv.], (Sir) G. I. Taylor [qv.], (Sir) W. S. Farren [qv.], (Sir) B. Melvill Jones [qv.], and Hermann Glauert.
In 1919 Adrian returned to Cambridge to work in the Physiological Laboratory and to Trinity College where he looked after the medical students as well as lecturing and demonstrating in the university. His teaching load was heavy but it did not seem to interfere with his research. For a time he continued with analytical electrophysiology of the kind which he had started with Lucas. These researches led to some excellent papers, but Adrian was clearly dissatisfied with this line of work as he referred later to getting bogged down in somewhat unprofitable experiments. In 1925 he started to use a valve amplifier built to the design of the American H. S. Gasser who with Erlanger was the first to record nerve impulses with a cathode ray oscilloscope and valve amplifier. The cathode ray tubes that existed in those days had such low actinic power that they would have been useless for Adrian's purposes, but he got by initially with home-made capillary electrometers, and later made good use of the excellent mechanical oscilloscope devised by his young colleague, (Sir) Bryan H. C. Matthews. With these relatively inexpensive instruments Adrian and his colleagues produced a series of outstanding papers, many of which would perhaps be even better known if the results were not so clear-cut that they now appear self-evident. The initial breakthrough was made by Adrian working on his own, perhaps with some help from Sybil Cooper, but he was joined later in 1925 by Yngve Zotterman from Sweden with whom he subsequently wrote three distinguished papers. Other important collaborations were those with Rachel Matthews on the eye, with Detlev W. Bronk on motor impulses, with Bryan Matthews on electrical waves from the sensory cortex (Berger rhythm), and much later with G. Moruzzi on the motor cortex and pyramidal tracts. The main conclusions are summarized in three short books, all written versions of lectures: The Basis of Sensation (1928), The Mechanism of Nervous Action (1932), and The Physical Background of Perception (1946).
Adrian's work with Zotterman (1925-6) established beyond doubt that the nerve impulse is invariant, that the intensity of sensation is conveyed by the frequency of impulses and the quality by the type of nerve fibre in action. There are subtle qualifications to this last principle but it still stands as a broad generalization. Another very important conclusion is that adaptation to a steady stimulus generally takes place peripherally and that some sense organs, like those concerned with touch, adapt rapidly whereas others like muscle spindles adapt very slowly, or not at all.
In 1927-8 Adrian and Bronk showed that there is only one kind of impulse in a motor nerve fibre as well as in a sensory one, and that the force of muscular contraction, like the intensity of sensation, is graded by varying the frequency of nerve impulses and the number of nerve fibres in action.
During the early 1930s Adrian became increasingly interested in the way in which the nervous system might generate electrical rhythms and this interest led to the well-known papers written with Matthews and Yamagiwa which consolidated the initial work of Hans Berger and helped to found the important clinical subject of electroencephalography. During World War II, Adrian somehow managed to find time to do important experimental work on vestibular receptors, the cerebellum, and the motor and sensory cortex. His last studies on the sense of smell (1937-59) rank as an important contribution to a fascinating but still largely unsolved problem.
Adrian received many honours including the Nobel prize, shared with Sir C. S. Sherrington [qv.], in 1932, the OM in 1942, and a peerage in 1955. He was professor of physiology at Cambridge from 1937 to 1951, master of Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1951 to 1965, foreign secretary of the Royal Society (1946-50), president of the Royal Society (1950-5), chancellor of the University of Leicester (1957-71), and vice-chancellor (1957-9) and later chancellor (1968-75) of the University of Cambridge. He was president of the British Association in 1954 and of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1960-1. Adrian's tenure of all these offices is particularly remembered for the magnificent speeches that he made at important ceremonial occasions. Like Sir Francis Bacon [qv.], he was one of the very few people of whom it could be said that when he spoke the only anxiety of the audience was that he would stop. He attended the House of Lords as regularly as his many academic commitments allowed, sitting on the cross-benches and speaking mainly on medical and scientific problems of university affairs. Adrian received honorary degrees from twenty-nine universities and was an honorary or foreign member of an even larger number of academies and scientific societies.
In 1923 Adrian married (Dame) Hester Agnes Pinsent, daughter of Hume Chancellor Pinsent, a solicitor in Birmingham, and Dame Ellen Francis Pinsent, distinguished for her work on mental health, an interest later shared by her daughter. They had three children: Mrs Ann Keynes, Mrs Jennet Campbell, and Richard Hume Adrian FRS (born 1927), who succeeded to his father's title and shared his interest in physiology.
After his wife's death in 1966, Adrian returned to Trinity College, where he lived in a beautiful set of rooms in a corner of Nevile's Court. Until failing health intervened it was his custom to entertain scholars and other undergraduates to lunch about once a week in term-time. He died in the Evelyn Nursing Home in Cambridge 4 August 1977.
Paintings of Adrian by Ruskin Spear RA (1953) can be seen in Trinity College and the Physiological Laboratory, Cambridge; another by A. R. Middleton Todd is at the Royal Society of London; and a fourth, by (Sir) Lawrence Gowing, is at the University of Leicester. There is a bronze head by F. E. McWilliam in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge.
A. L. Hodgkin in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol. xxv, 1979.
Contributor: A. L. Hodgkin