Articles from this issue




The advancement of science characteristically occurs in two phases, with periods of ground-breaking conceptual discoveries being followed by consolidatory periods of refinement and technical develop-ment of the initial concepts. In the case of neuroscience, the ground-breaking period for the 20th Century was 1910-1960. This window saw establishment of all the basic principles of nervous system function which we now take for granted – chemical neurotransmission, identities of the main transmitter sub-stances, ionic regulation of membrane excitability and the principles of receptor and enzyme pharmacology.

In all these areas, a strikingly high proportion of the major findings involved a small group of German scientists who had come to Britain during the 1930s: Edith Bülbring, Bernard Katz, Wilhelm Feldberg, Herman Blaschko and Marthe Vogt. Although their early careers in England relied on the patronage of an older generation of household names such as Henry Dale (Vogt, Feldberg), A V Hill (Katz, Blaschko), Joseph Barcroft (Vogt, Blaschko) and J H Burn (Bülbring), the Germans brought a unique combination of technical skills and intellectual rigour that seemed to be somehow lacking in the country before that time. Indeed, it is worth pondering how many of the enormous advances that are traditionally linked to Dale, in particular, would have been possible without Feldberg and Vogt.

Marthe Vogt was born in Berlin in 1903. Her parents were both prominent neuroanatomists, so the urge to become a research scientist may have been instilled in her very early. In any case, she immediately followed her medical degree in Berlin with a doctorate in chemistry, and with this adaptable background became research assistant to Otto Trendelen-burg in the Berlin Department of Pharmacology (1930). She was clearly on top of this job, since the following year she was appointed as Head of the Chemistry Department of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research. Shortly afterwards, however, she decided along with many others that a move to Britain would be sensible. In 1935 she arrived on a Rockefeller Travelling Fellowship in Dale’s laboratory at Mill Hill, where Feldberg was already working. Within a few months the three had published in the Journal of Physiology the first definitive evidence that skeletal neuromuscular transmission was mediated by acetylcholine.

The following year, she moved to Barcroft’s department at Cambridge, as Andrew Barton Research Fellow of Girton College. In 1941 she returned to London, working with Gaddum in the Pharmaceutical Society laboratories on Tavistock Place until 1946. She accompanied Gaddum to Edinburgh when he took up the Chair of Pharmacology, as lecturer and then as Reader in Pharmacology. Then in 1960 she moved back to Cambridge once more to head the Pharmacology Unit at the Babraham ARC Institute. She retired from formal duties in 1968 but continued to work actively at Babraham until 1990.

Vogt’s list of awards is awe-inspiring. She became FRS in 1952, a time when election of women was almost unheard of, received the Royal Medal of the Society in 1981, held honorary doctorates from Edinburgh and Cambridge and honorary member-ships of many professional bodies including, of course, the BPS. Perhaps her most intriguing accolade is her election in 1977 as a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. I am not certain whether this meant she could vote for Academy Awards.

Vogt’s research focused on biogenic amines and her major interest until around 1965 was catecholaminergic transmission. However, late in life she became increasingly interested in the transmitter function of serotonin and most of her publications after 1970 were on this topic.

I first met her in 1965 when she was a visiting professor at the University of Sydney and was lucky enough to spend a post-doctoral period with her in Cambridge, measuring transmitter release from adrenergic and cholinergic vasomotor nerves. At that time, bioassay was the only technique sufficiently sensitive to detect nanogram quantities of transmitter, and Vogt’s laboratory was renowned for use of the leech dorsal muscle and the pithed rat for measurement of acetylcholine and noradrenaline respectively.

The procedures that we (and most other laboratories of the time) used would give a modern-day health and safety manager apoplexy; but the whole idea of health and safety legislation was not even dreamt of then. We separated catecholamines by paper chromato-graphy in phenol, washing the paper free of phenol in an open bath of benzene. Contractions of the bioassay tissues were recorded by a stylus scratching soot off a moving paper strip that had been previously smoked using a benzene/coal gas flame.

This technique (smoked-drum kymography) was the usual way of recording in all research and teaching laboratories at that time, although within five years it would have been replaced by chart recorders. The smoked drum had the considerable advantage that there was a visible connection between tissue and recorded signal, so it was easy to see when something went wrong. It had the disadvantage that in order to stabilize the record, the paper had to be dipped in varnish. Many good experiments were invalidated by a careless brush of the lab coat on the way to the varnishing tank. A second problem was that the very light styli necessary to record small forces sometimes jammed in the soot. Vogt’s assistant, an ex-podiatrist named John McEwan, had perfected an appropriate preventive mechanism for this: a carpet slipper strapped to a Harvard rat respirator tapped the bench as the pump rotated and the vibrations shook the stylus free. The only problem was the noise of the slipper…..

Vogt was perhaps a little daunting at first acquaintance, being tall and gaunt and famous, but she was also kind and considerate and went to great lengths to look after visitors in the lab. Everyone was invited to her house behind Girton for meals and inspections of her much prized roses and, almost without exception, anyone who worked with her seemed to remain a friend.

The affection that she inspired, as well as the wide range of her scientific collaborators, was obvious when Bruce Holman and I organised a Festschrift for her in Edinburgh in 1979, to celebrate her 50th year in research. The 40-odd participants from all quarters of the globe included people as diverse as Henry Adam, Claudio Cuello, Chris Fry, Bernard Ginsborg, John Gillespie, Eric Horton, Sol Langer, Erich Muscholl, Mary Pickford, David Smith, Ullrich Trendelenburg and Eleanor Zaimis, as well as Bülbring, Blaschko and Feldberg. The original intention of the meeting had been to celebrate Vogt’s 75th birthday, but we had miscounted. However, this was compensated by her attendance at an IUPS satellite meeting on Hayman Island in 1983, which coincided almost exactly with both her and Bülbring’s 80th birthdays and provided the opportunity of fêting them both at a rather rowdy beach dinner.

Her decision to finally retire from active life was made at the remarkable age of 87, when failing eyesight became too much of an obstacle to the efficient maintenance of her garden. She moved from Cambridge to a unit in La Jolla, where her virologist sister lives, and became increasingly reclusive, spending most of her time listening to the great German composers. She died as she had lived, quietly and with dignity, on her 100th birthday.

Chris Bell
Trinity College Dublin