Dr. Georg von Bekesy, Senior Research Fellow in Psychophysics, yesterday was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine, for his research on the mechanisms of the car. The award is valued this year at $48,300.
The 62-year-old Hungarian-born scientist, who was in New York yesterday to receive an award from the Deafness Research Foundation, was surprised by the news. "I?" he exclaimed, after seeing the Associated Press dispatch from Sweden.
In the official statement of the Royal Caroline Medico-Chirurgical Institute (which awards the prize), the Harvard researcher was praised for "experimental skill...of an extremely high order." Specifically, the statement cited von Bekesy's "discoveries concerning the physical mechanisms of stimulation within the cochlea," which is a part of the inner car.
Originally a physicist, von Bekesy became interested in the car when an economist asked him (in the early 1920's) about improvements possible in communications systems. He then began to wonder how much better was the car than a telephone system, according to Stanley S. Stevens, Director of the Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory.
To study the processes which change sound waves into electrical impulses, he built a model of the cochlea which was able to exercise selectivity in sound waves. He then tested his work by electrically stimulating the cochlea of a corpse. Gluing tiny mirrors to the eardrum and measuring its response to impulses, von Bekesy was able to measure the travelling wave as it swept past the membrane.
"Von Bekesy's engineering approach to the car," explains Herbert A. Shaw, Director of Medical Information, "led to having the ear considered as an end organ of the central nervous system, like the eye."
While conducting his experimentation to discover just how the ear hears, von Bekesy developed an entire set of basic research tools such as probes, drills, microscopic scissors, and stroboscopes.
Another result of his investigations was the development of revolutionary surgical treatments for deafness. For example, after von Bekesy's description of the three tiny bones in the inner car, it became possible to make metal replacements for defective or fused bones.
The research conducted by von Bekesy has been so extensive that the Caroline Institute statement dclared "There is hardly any problem concerning the physical mechanisms of acoustic stimulation to which von Bekesy has not added clarity and understanding."
"A scientist's scientist," in the estimation of Psycho-Acoustic Lab director Stevens, von Bekesy often works past midnight in his lab. While presenting the Gold Medal of the Acoustical Society of America to von Bekesy last May, Stevens declared, "No one...knows more about the ear."
In addition to constant car research, von Bekesy is an avid antique collector, and is a familiar prowling figure in Cambridge and New England antique shops. He exhibits pieces of early art in his laboratory "to relieve the stark gleam of instruments that bristle with knobs and dials," according to Stevens.
The work for which von Bekesy received the Nobel award was actually done at the Royal Hungarian Institute in Budapest. After leaving Hungary in 1946, von Bekesy went to Sweden as Research Professor at the Caroline Institute. In 1947 he came to Harvard.
The Nobel Prize for Medicine is the first to be announced. The award for literature will be given in a week, while chemistry and physics prize winners will be named on Nov. 2.
Von Bekesy will officially receive his award from King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden during the formal ceremonies at the Stockholm Concert Hall, Dec. 10.