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Sir John Carew (Jack) Eccles (1903–1997)

by David Curtis

Sir John Eccles, Foundation Professor of Physiology at the John Curtin School of Medical Research (1951-66), died in Switzerland on May 2 aged 94. He was nationally and internationally recognised as an outstanding neurophysiologist, particularly for his major contributions to understanding of excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmission in the mammalian central nervous system, and also for his investigations of the integrative functioning of this system.

John (Jack) Carew Eccles was born in Victoria in 1903, and was educated at Warrnambool and Melbourne High Schools and the University of Melbourne, graduating in Medicine early in 1925. During his medical course he became interested in the brain-mind problem and later in 1925 as a Rhodes Scholar, he began research at Oxford University under his mentor — the distinguished neurophysiologist Sir Charles Sherrington, Nobel Laureate in 1932.

As a young inexperienced researcher, Jack Eccles met and made friends with many established investigators in Oxford and became a member of the Sherrington team studying reflexes in the spinal cord. He collaborated closely with Sherrington from 1928 until 1931 and the analysis of reflexes by the Oxford "school" was a major step forward.

Sherrington retired in 1935 at the age of 78 and in 1937 Eccles returned to Australia as Director of the Kanematsu Institute at Sydney Hospital. Late in 1943 he accepted appointment as Professor of Physiology in Dunedin, New Zealand.

In 1951, realising that in New Zealand he would be unable to compete with developments in neuroscience elsewhere which would be based on his new discoveries, he accepted an invitation to the Chair of Physiology in the John Curtin School within the relatively young ANU. During his appointment in Canberra which he later described as his "14 golden years, scientifically speaking", Eccles was able to attract colleagues from 20 different countries, over 400 scientific papers and 4 books were published, and in 1963 he shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for his fundamental contributions to the ionic mechanisms of synaptic transmission in the brain.

In Canberra, in addition to active participation in complex experiments, frequently lasting several days, Eccles was involved with developments in the JCSMR and University House. A Fellow of the Royal Society of London since 1941 he was a Foundation Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1954, and the Academy's second President (1957-61). He was knighted in 1958, Australian of the Year in 1963 and a Companion in the Order of Australia in 1990. Eccles was a member of many distinguished Academies abroad, was awarded numerous honorary degrees and delivered many prestigious lectures.

In 1966, concerned about facilities available in the School for his research after retirement at the age of 65, he accepted a senior position at the Institute of Biomedical Research which had been established by the American Medical Association in Chicago. He soon regretted this decision, and in 1968 moved to the State University of New York at Buffalo as Distinguished Professor of Physiology and Biophysics. He was thus able to return to active participation in research dealing with the mode of operation of the cerebellum in the control of movement.

This continued until his voluntary retirement in 1975 at the age of 72 when he moved to Contra near Locarno in the Canton of Ticino in the south of Switzerland. From here he travelled widely in Europe, the UK and the USA. In 1993 many of his colleagues gathered in Frankfurt in honour of his 90th birthday where he discussed the functions of the cerebral cortex and the futility of using computer-based models to provide useful information about the complex functions of the human brain. His activities were restricted by illness in the last three to four years.

Original publication

Citation details

David Curtis, 'Eccles, Sir John Carew (Jack) (1903–1997)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 July 2024.

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