The "Neurosciences Research Program" of Francis O. Schmitt (1903-1995) as seen from a German perspective

Frank W. STAHNISCH
Institute for History of Medicine and Medical Ethics, Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany


Probably no other researcher, in the 20th-century, has done more to foster the interdisciplinary and integrative approach in the neurosciences than the second institute professor F. O. Schmitt at MIT in Boston. Inspired by his postdoctoral studies in England and Germany between 1927 and 1929, his journey to European science institutions in 1959, and driven by his urge to integrate different research means into basic biophysical science, he organised two seminar series at MIT in 1960 and 1961. These meetings can be seen as the nucleus of the Neurosciences Research Program (NRP), which Schmitt inaugurated at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Brookline, Massachusetts. The impact of NRP as well as that of the legendary Boulder meetings at the University of Colorado is well known to neuroscientists and historians of neuroscience: Schmitt managed to bring together an international group of eminent researchers from various disciplines and stimulate their productive interaction in the study of the nervous system. But we do not have an adequate account of what caused his political intentions in the neurosciences in the first place and what prompted researchers from all over the world to engage in the conferences and events organised by F. O. Schmitt.

In the first part, this paper traces some of Schmitt's reflections exposed in his autobiographical account in The Never-Ceasing Search (1990). These personal considerations shall then be related to the historical state of the neurological, psychiatric, and basic sciences of the 1960s in Germany to investigate what non-American participants could have interested in the content and structure of NRP.

In the second part, based on the method of Oral History, illustrative personal accounts of some major German neuroscientists are presented. How did they perceive their endeavours in relation to the general development of neuroscience into an interdisciplinary research field? Their views shall be compared to the state of essential topics in the Neurosciences Research Program Bulletin and central German neuroscientific journals between the 1960s and 1980s. The results shall give further hints as to how important interdisciplinary work is perceived in the neurosciences and their research organisation.


Session XI -- The Makers and Shapers of Neuroscience
Tuesday, 29 June 2004, 11:05 am

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

Montreal, Quebec, Canada