Békésy Laboratory of Neurobiology
Georg von Békésy (1899 - 1972)
Georg von Békésy was born in Budapest, Hungary on June 3,
1899. He received his early education in Munich, Constantinople,
Budapest, and Zurich and studied chemistry at the University of Berne.
He was awarded his Ph.D. from the University of Budapest in 1926 for
development of a fast method for determining molecular weight.
Afterwards he worked primarily for the Hungarian Telephone and Post
Office Laboratory in Budapest where his interests were directed towards
problems of telecommunications. Eventually he examined the problem of
how best to design a telephone earphone.
Békésy's measurement of basilar membrane
displacement as a function of frequency and position along the length
of the membrane. From: Concerning the pleasures of observing, and the
mechanics of the inner ear. Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1961, Georg von
Békésy (in Nobel Lectures Physiology or Medicine 1942 -
1962, Elsevier, 1964, pp. 722-746).
Research on this problem led to his 1928 discovery of the mechanical
characteristics of neural transduction in the inner ear. One of
Békésy's principal contributions was the development of
anatomical techniques that allowed rapid, nondestructive dissection of
the cochlea. This dissection was done under a low-power microscope
using a special grinding mechanism operated in a water bath.
Békésy was able to observe the traveling waves along the
basilar membrane that were produced by sound. He observed the shape of
these waves by stroboscopic examination of the motion of particles of
silver which he sprinkled on the nearly transparent basilar membrane.
Depending upon the frequency of the sound, the traveling waves achieved
maximum amplitude in different locations. He was awarded the Nobel
Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1961 for his discovery and
subsequent research arising from it.
Dr. Békésy's mechanical model of the inner ear with nerve supply. Photo reproduced from: Nobel Lectures Physiology or Medicine 1942-1962, Elsevier 1964, p. 744.
Georg von Békésy in the lab at Harvard University
In 1947, after a year in Sweden, Dr. Békésy came to the
United States and worked at Harvard University where he developed a
mechanical model of the inner ear. A separate
page shows more pictures of this fascinating device and Bekesy's
description of it from his Nobel lecture. The model became a useful
tool for his more recent investigations.
Threatened by forced
retirement from Harvard, Dr. Békésy came to the
University of Hawaii in 1966. He was attracted by construction of a
special laboratory for him and the prospect of closer contact with
oriental culture. His research in Hawaii was partially sponsored by
Hawaiian Telephone and was concerned with phenomena that were general
properties of all senses.
Throughout his life, Dr. Békésy assembled an extensive
collection of paintings, statues and
artifacts now owned by the Nobel Foundation. The process of
constant comparison of related objects which he used to select pieces
for his collection was to Békésy very similar to the
methods he used to organize his scientific research.
Learn more about Georg von Békésy by browsing the many