von békésy

Georg von Békésy

[bey-kuh-shee; Hung. bey-key-shi]

Georg von Békésy (Békésy György) (June 3, 1899June 13, 1972) was a Hungarian biophysicist born in Budapest.

In 1961, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on the function of the cochlea in the mammalian hearing organ. The decision of the prize committee had been controversial from the beginning, and research of the past three decades revealed that von Békésy’s main conclusions were in error.

Research

Békésy developed a method for dissecting the inner ear of human cadavers while leaving the cochlea partly intact. By using strobe photography and silver flakes as a marker, he was able to observe that the basilar membrane moves like a surface wave when stimulated by sound. Because of the structure of the cochlea and the basilar membrane, different frequencies of sound cause the maximum amplitudes of the waves to occur at different places on the basilar membrane along the coil of the cochlea.

He concluded that his observations showed how different sound wave frequencies are locally dispersed before exciting different nerve fibers that lead from the cochlea to the brain. He theorized that the placement of each sensory cell (hair cell) along the coil of the cochlea corresponds to a specific frequency of sound (the so-called tonotopy). Békésy later developed a mechanical model of the cochlea, which confirmed the concept of frequency dispersion by the basilar membrane in the mammalian cochlea. But this model could not provide any information as to a possible function of this frequency dispersion in the process of hearing.

In a posthumous 1974 article looking back over progress in the field, he remarked "In time, I came to the conclusion that the dehydrated cats and the application of Fourier analysis to hearing problems became more and more a handicap for research in hearing, referring to the difficulties in getting animal preparations to behave as when alive, and the misleading common interpretations of Fourier analysis in hearing research.

Biography

Békésy was born in Budapest, Hungary, the son of diplomat Alexander von Békésy and his wife Paula. He went to school in Budapest, Istanbul, Munich, and Zürich. He studied chemistry in Berne and received his PhD from the University of Budapest in 1926.

During World War II, Békésy worked for the Hungarian Post Office, where he did research on telecommunications. This research led him to become interested in the workings of the ear. In 1946, he left Hungary to follow this line of research at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.

In 1947, he moved to the United States, working at Harvard University until 1966. He became a professor at the University of Hawaii in 1966 and died in Honolulu.

References

Further reading

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