Ross G. Harrison (1870-1959) and the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1917

Department of Anatomy, The University of Mississippi Medical Center, Jackson, Mississippi 39216 USA

In the period of 1906-1912 Ross Granville Harrison developed methods to culture and assure the longer-term survival of tissues outside the organism. While Harrison was not the first to attempt to culture tissue, nor the first to succeed, he was the first to get tissues to survive in culture conditions for long periods of time. His ability to achieve survival times, of up to four weeks, were considered a remarkable achievement for the time and his techniques (hanging drop method) and results acclaimed as an important discovery. Harrison noted the development of contractions in muscle, growth of neurites to muscle cells and, most importantly, the fact that the processes of neurons were the result of outgrowth of the neuron cell body. Some scientists of the period believed that Harrison's discoveries were the ultimate proof of the neuron doctrine.

Harrison was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1913, 1914 and 1917. The Nobel Committee for Physiology and Medicine met, deliberated and by majority vote recommended that the prize for 1917 go to Harrison for "...his discovery of the development of the nerve fibers by independent growth from cells outside the organism...". However, for reasons that remain enigmatic, even to this day, the prize was never awarded. After 1917 Harrison was repeatedly nominated for The Prize, including once by Hans Spemann who would receive The Prize in 1935. In 1933 the Nobel Committee again considered Harrison. However, in a decision that, in retrospect, was profoundly short-sighted the award could not be given because of "...the rather limited value of the method and age of the discovery..."!

This paper explores the hanging drop method, its revolutionary nature at that time, the persons and events surrounding the nomination of Harrison for the Prize, and the events which may have resulted in the award not being made.

Session VI -- 20th Century
Tuesday, 12 June 2000, 11:00 - 11:30 am

Fifth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Providence, Rhode Island, USA