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J.Z. Young (1907-1997)
J.Z. Young (1907-1997)
John Zachary (JZ) Young died last August, in Oxford, over 90 years old. He was born in Bristol on 18 March 1907. During a career spanning nearly 70 years John Young made vast experimental studies on anatomy, microscopic structure and function of the nervous system of cephalopods and selachian fishes; headed (or, more correctly, built) from 1945 to 1974 at University College London a large Anatomy Department, with a strong commitment to research and to teaching medical students; wrote classic textbooks of zoology and evolutionary anatomy; explored and discussed the functions of the brain in all aspects of life (Programs of the Brain, 1978); popularised neuroanatomy and neurophysiology (his Reith lectures of 1950 were published as Doubt and Uncertainty in Science) to a wide public and to specialists in other disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, anthropology.
In Philosophy of the Brain (1987), based on the Shearman Lectures given at University College in 1982, he set himself no lesser tasks than to show how the activities going on in the brain are relevant to questions about the nature of man, freedom, determinism, ethical values, and other questions posed by philosophers, and to show how important it is that biologists understand philosophical concepts.
JZ Young started his research in the late 1920s, in Oxford, with studies, partly carried out at the Stazione Zoologica in Naples, on cephalopods and fishes. In 1933 appeared a major study on the autonomic nervous system of selachians (a field to which he returned later in life and on which he was still doing experimental work a few years ago). At that time, he published the first correct and detailed characterisation of the giant axons of the squid, opening the way for biophysicists to investigate and understand membrane excitability and nerve conduction. The historical importance of the introduction of the giant axon in neurophysiology was immense, and perhaps, JZ thought he never received enough credit for it. A few years later, the tragic effects of nerve injuries in war casualties steered him, while still in Oxford, on to the study of axon regeneration and grafting and of nerve injuries in higher vertebrates and man.
After the war, in London, Professor Young's experimental work continued with renewed intensity, especially the work on the octopus, and was supplemented with the headship of a leading Department and with the preparation of major textbooks of zoology and comparative anatomy.
The Life of Vertebrates appeared in 1950. This extraordinary book (reprinted in its 3rd edition in 1981) broke an old mould and brought evolutionary and adaptive mechanisms fully to bear on the understanding of biological structure. In 1957, the almost equally successful Life of Mammals appeared, and in 1971 the more comprehensive, more ambitious and, inevitably, more controversial Introduction to the Study of Man.
On the study of cephalopods, in particular the brain of the octopus, JZ invested an enormous effort, with the help of a handful of loyal collaborators. How great the influence of this work on the octopus brain will be in the neurosciences is difficult to assess. What may have weighed against the octopus model (for example, in the long search of an elementary unit of memory) was the exceptional difficulty of carrying out electrophysiology experiments and preserving the ultrastructure of these tissues. But the leap of the imagination leading one to study higher nervous functions in a mollusc, must surely be an outstanding example and lesson.
The most striking aspect of JZ's personality emerged from his challenging stance against psychologists and philosophers in his early years in Oxford, and gained strength from his studies on the nervous functions in invertebrates and the mechanisms of evolution. He was a man of thought, an intellectual biologist, who did not fear to go into fields far away and seemingly far too complex. And yet, while striving so hard and not sparing his critical mind, he remained mentally restless and maintained a genuine humility as to the power of science to explain it all. He never said that knowledge is all or that all can be known. But we should try, and that has meaning.
His example was a monumental industriousness and the extraordinary co-operation of his eyes, hands and intellect.
Giorgio GabellaDepartment of Anatomy and Developmental Biology at University College, London
The Obituary was prepared for the British Neuroscience Association Newsletter, No. 30, 1997.