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Transcript: George H. Bishop, 1969

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Archives Collection Oral History Number 4, recorded on November 24, 1969 with Dr. George Bishop concerning his collaboration with Dr. Joseph Erlanger on nerve action potential research during the 1920s.  Dr. Erlanger later received the 1944 Nobel Prize in physiology for this research.

I started as a drop-out and then went back and got a college degree and I never had a course in biology until I got two years beyond graduation and after applying to several universities I got a job at Dr. [Joseph] Erlanger’s department in Physiology here, when they were – when Erlanger and [Herbert S.] Gasser – were working on the properties of nerve fibers as they showed up on the oscilloscope.  The beginning of that work was with Dr. Gasser in which he used the string galvanometer which proved to be too slow and too tender, your might say, and broke too easily to be serviceable for nerve until the Braun tube came along and was modified with the hot cathode so that reduced the voltage from 10,000 volts, which we didn’t have then, to 300 volts, which we could get by batteries.  So Gasser and [H. S.] Newcomer and Erlanger fixed up a [gas] jet [for glass making].  They first tried to make a Braun tube because they couldn’t buy one and having got it all made they turned the current on and there was an explosion and blew it all to thunder – they’d forgotten to put in a central controlling resistor.  Then they could get the oscilloscope from Western Electric for experimental use only; it wasn’t on the market.

So for a number of years there we got those tubes and charged them with a stack of batteries three feet high, dry cells and crude apparatus.  There was only one kind of triode [vacuum tube] we could use and that wasn’t very good.  We had to make all our own apparatus.  It stumbled along by jerks and starts; we finally got down to recording the nerve properties of the fibers of a frog’s sciatic.

Well, Erlanger and Gasser had got their first results when I came into it in 1922, ’24.  Gasser was going to Europe and only one person couldn’t work the apparatus, so I was brought in as a second person to help Dr. Erlanger go on with the work.  Which we did.  Until Gasser got back and then the three of us each took a certain field, and we put our names first on our field but otherwise everybody signed all the papers and no paper was published without it being under [authored by] all three people, which we thought was a pretty safe proposition.

Now with three energetic people working on the same problem, a lot of them have differences of interpretation, which did occur and was not too serious until a fourth person [Peter Heinbecker] who had been working with me on the lungs wanted to get some information.  He was a chest surgeon [working] on the nerves of the chest and we got the permission from Dr. Erlanger for him to work under me recording the sympathetic nerve of the turtle.  The sympathetic nerves of the chest are important.  So he started out – I showed him how to work the apparatus – he started out and began to hunt for the things we’d seen in the peripheral nerve (but of course they are not there).  And so he wanted to end up when the others let him alone, until he finally, with a very slow arm [time base], found a hump [wave] he thought must be muscle.  He couldn’t understand it – it might be presynaptic inhibition of chest muscles.  We looked at it further and found out that it was a slow wave that we hadn’t seen before and was not the celiac sympathetic nerve wave.

The group that was working there had already known we were missing something.  The A group was of myelinated fibers and the A group was divided into four sections – the alpha, beta, gamma, and delta – and the gamma-delta was really one group and went together.  Well then, the question now was, what do those fiber groups mediate?  Of course, they didn’t include the sympathetic, we knew that.  Gasser was very much interested in the sympathetic and just couldn’t find it.  The trouble was he didn’t recognize that the unmyelinated fibers had a much slower conduction time than the myelinated, yet even for the same size fibers.  The myelination seems to speed up the conduction rate.  That was unknown entirely and that was the source of the difficulty.  And they got stumbled onto it.  He just pulled all the stops out and tried everything and stumbled on the late wave which turned out to be the sympathetic.

Another difference of opinion was what happened in the delta wave.  Heinbecker and I, working on cats and humans, thought we could trace the pain in the delta fibers – they mediated painful stimuli.  Erlanger thought they were something else, probably he didn’t know quite what, but he didn’t think they involved pain and there was quite a discussion about it.

And there was some misunderstanding about Heinbecker’s work – that he should have reported to Erlanger immediately when he got results instead of to me.  I didn’t know what he meant, and so we sat down and worked it out before we reported it, and that caused a little friction.  Further than the usual difficulties that we were having [in] laboratories when four opinionated and energetic people all working on different aspects of the same thing and try to get together.

Well, it finally got smoothed out and I moved over into the ophthalmology institute, working on optic nerve, and I’ve been over there ever since.  [I] transferred first to support from the Rockefeller Foundation and then entered the Department of Neurology.

I’ve been in one office for about forty-five years and am still there fifteen years after retirement.  But I got my start with Erlanger and Gasser in 1924 and have been at it ever since.  That work, of course, has been extremely important.  The foundations – difficulties – are not significant.  It just took time to get enough data on enough different animals so that the thing could be straightened out.

The difficulties in personalities – once you always find out that there always have been fights in other laboratories [and] they get settled the same way, and the troubles are forgotten in the conquest of science.  We all took part in and no one of us didn’t contribute something to the others.  I think everybody finally realized that, and the difficulties were all settled.

The interesting thing to me is the stumbling around and the difficulties of doing things that now seem so simple.  For instance to add to the triode of the Western Electric relay tube – the electronic tube – add the peptode(?) and the pentode.  I monkeyed around with those because they were so much better amplifiers and could be worked upstairs, anywhere, by proper shielding.  Down in the basement we worked under the chemical laboratory and the leaks from the chemical spills were so good we had to put a tin roof over the apparatus.  It was damp down there and the AC, when it was carried over to the crippled children’s hospital [Shriners Hospital], Dr. Erlanger insisted it should go outside the building and down the street and around his laboratory so that it wouldn’t be within 200 feet of the oscilloscope.  That was almost necessary.  Now, of course, I _____(?) worked them everywhere and they’re shielded and they were appropriate.  That kind of thing was the difficulty.

Often we’d work all day and wind up at five o’clock at night with one good record.  And that record was obtained not with a camera – the tube wasn’t bright enough to photograph – so we held up a big piece of film up against the end of the oscilloscope and we’d get a blurred line there that we could interpret approximately, defining the waves of the compound action current.  So it isn’t surprising at all that it was difficult to settle some of these things.  Everybody contributed, even if you disagreed.  It was a good thing to have a disagreement, I think, now and then.

Is that enough?

This is the end of Archives Collection Oral History Interview Number 4.


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