The molecular turn

Christopher. U.M. SMITH

Vision Sciences, Aston University, Birmingham B4 7ET, England
Tel. 0121-4492970, Fax. 0212-3334220


It is noteworthy that after the structure of DNA was elucidated in the mid-1950s, a number of prominent members of the scientific community responsible for that "breakthrough" transferred their attention to what seemed to them the next (if not last) great unsolved problem in biology : the brain. This paper will review the impact of that move on the development of neuroscience in the latter part of the 20th century.

How far did it affect the development of neuroscience ? How far was it driven by the availability of techniques ? How far did the molecular biologists alter the mindset of neurophysiologists and change the dominating metaphors of neuroscience ? How far does the necessarily reductionist nature of the molecular approach do what the pioneers hoped : elucidate the brain ? These are some of the questions which will be touched on in this presentation. In a necessarily short paper only one or at most a few strands in this complex history can be followed. Attention will be focussed, in particular, on the history of the structural analysis of ligand and voltage-gated channels. It has been argued that the outcome of the molecular biology of the 1950s was to change the concept of the gene from that of "a mysterious entity into that of a real molecular object" (1) ; something similar can be said of the impact of molecular biology on our concepts of the gates and channels which play such crucial roles at the synapse.

1. Watson, J.D., 1965, The Molecular Biology of the Gene, New York : Benjamin, p.66.


Panel 2A   (The Historiography of the Neurosciences in the Twentieth Century)
Tuesday, 14 September 1999

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999