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Sir John Carew (Jack) Eccles (1903–1997)

by Andrew Bell

This article was published online in 2022

John Eccles, n.d.

John Eccles, n.d.

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-359

John Carew Eccles (1903–1997), neuroscientist, was born on 27 January 1903 at Northcote, Melbourne, only son and elder child of William James Eccles and his wife Mary, née Carew, both Victorian born. A precocious child, Jack excelled at Jumbunna State School, south Gippsland, where his father was head teacher. He continued to shine at Koroit State and Warrnambool High schools, and in his one, final, year (1919) at Melbourne High School. At the University of Melbourne (MB, BS, 1925) medicine became his choice of study as he was too late to enrol in his preferred mathematics. Young Eccles was large-framed and energetic, and a keen competitor in pole-vaulting and tennis.

A ‘sudden overwhelming experience’ (Popper and Eccles 1977, 357) during his first year at medical school took the form of a mystical feeling of existential wonder that owed much to his devout Catholicism and inspired him to be a neuroscientist. He read widely, including Darwin and such philosophers as Descartes, on the perennial dualist problem of how humans appear to possess both mind and body. With no satisfactory answer, but convinced that both realms existed, he became determined to find a scientific basis for how inner mental life coexists with a physical brain. At the end of his medical studies he commenced his residency at St Vincent’s Hospital, Fitzroy, where he met New Zealand-born Irene (Rene) Frances Mary Miller, a quietly spoken trainee nurse. They married at St Aloysius Catholic Church, Oxford, England, on 3 July 1928, and went on to have nine children.

Eccles’s intellectual and scientific quest was to take him through some magnificent highs and painful lows, but he never wavered; ‘Like Odysseus, I have travelled the oceans carrying my own equipment with me like a snail with his house on his back’ (Eccles 1977, 1), he observed late in life. His scientific career entailed six major watersheds as he moved between institutions around the globe: at Oxford, Sydney, Dunedin, Canberra, Chicago, and Buffalo in New York State, progressively refocusing his research as he went. The first watershed began at the end of his medical training when he won the 1925 Rhodes scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford (BA, 1927; MA, DPhil, 1929), the first awarded to a Victorian State school graduate. There he studied under the neurophysiologist Sir Charles Sherrington, ‘the one man in the world whom I wished to have as my master’ (Eccles 1977, 1).

Sherrington too was a dualist. Eccles worked in his laboratory on nerve propagation in the spinal cord, while holding fellowships at Exeter (1927–34) and Magdalen colleges (1934–37). His first research paper, with R. S. Creed, appeared in 1928. Numerous journal papers followed, culminating in chapters for the textbook Reflex Activity of the Spinal Cord (1932), a work hailed as a scientific classic of the twentieth century. He then held that nerve impulses crossed synapses—the tiny junctions through which nerve cells communicate—electrically like a spark. This ran counter to the then generally accepted idea that propagation involved chemical signalling, with the synapse resembling a soup.

Fearing impending war in Europe, and missing out on leading Sherrington’s laboratory following his mentor’s retirement, Eccles successfully applied for the directorship of the Kanematsu Memorial Institute of Pathology, part of Sydney Hospital. In this second post (1937–43) he focused his research on the propagation of action potentials across synapses and the electrophysiology of end-plate potentials in muscles. With his recruitment of Bernard Katz and Stephen Kuffler, progress was made on neuromuscular transmission in cats and frogs. Yet the institute’s governing board paid little attention, even when Eccles was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1941. Friction developed, and he set his sights on the University of Otago at Dunedin, New Zealand, but not before guards at the institute were instructed not to allow him into the institute premises.

As professor of physiology at Otago (1944–51) Eccles displayed his characteristic energy. With skilled technical assistance, he developed intracellular electrodes so fine that it was possible, for the first time, to listen to electrical signalling within an individual nerve cell. Late one night in August 1951, at the end of a long experiment designed to settle whether synaptic transmission at the neuromuscular junction was electrical or chemical, he concluded that the latter must be the case and calmly changed his mind. An important factor leading to this switch was a chance encounter in May 1945 with the philosopher of science (Sir) Karl Popper. Popper gave a seminal series of lectures in Dunedin on falsifiability: science progresses, he asserted, not by the steady confirmation of theories, but by rigorous testing and attempted falsification of bold hypotheses. This dynamic rang true for the philosophically inclined Eccles, and he saw it as an inspiration to challenge accepted wisdom. He and Popper became lifelong friends, and later collaborated in writing a book arguing the case for dualism, The Self and Its Brain (1977), a tour de force that became Eccles’s most cited philosophical work.

Fortune shone for Eccles with the creation of the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra as an amply funded research institution. In 1951 he gladly seized the opportunity to become foundation professor of neurophysiology at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, taking with him from Otago highly specialised equipment which included electrical stimulating and recording units that he continued to use into the mid-1980s. He saw his time in Canberra as ‘14 golden years, scientifically speaking’ (Curtis and Andersen 2001, 445), in which he explored how nerve impulses act across synapses. On one reckoning, some 10.8 kg of publications emerged from his department during this time. The ANU became a Mecca for neuroscientists from around the world studying the spinal cord, thalamus, and cerebellum. His eldest daughter, Rosamond, with her own neuroscience doctorate, assisted him in conducting experiments. Eccles became a foundation fellow (1954) and president (1957–61) of the Australian Academy of Science, and was knighted in 1958.

In 1961 Eccles was elected to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences for his efforts to unite science and religion, and in 1962 won the Royal Society’s royal medal for his work on the function of the spinal cord. The pinnacle of his career was the award the following year of the Nobel prize in medicine or physiology, shared with Britain’s Alan Hodgkin and (Sir) Andrew Huxley, ‘for their discoveries concerning the ionic mechanisms involved in excitation and inhibition in the peripheral and central portions of the nerve cell membrane.’ By uncovering the inner workings of synapses, Eccles established himself as a neurophysiologist of the highest rank who effectively rewrote the textbooks on neural transmission. Soon after he was named as Australian of the Year for 1963.

His family life, however, began to unravel from 1963, when he met a Czech electrophysiologist, Helena Táboříková, in Prague and they began a secret liaison. In 1966 Eccles asked her to be his assistant in a new laboratory in the United States of America at the Institute of Biomedical Research, Chicago, which he was establishing in response to the ANU’s insistence that he retire at age sixty-five and work for up to three years as a university fellow. That same year, without warning, he abandoned Rene—along with their adult children, the Catholic Church, and his country—and began divorce proceedings which, distressingly, Rene learned about through the media. In April 1968 he and Helena were married. The bitterness continued: Eccles’s time at Chicago (1966–68) was the briefest, least successful, and unhappiest of his career. There was disharmony between laboratories, with one member describing Helena’s presence as a major complication. He escaped this turmoil by setting up a new laboratory at the State University of New York at Buffalo. This time the atmosphere was more congenial, and the equipment was the best he had ever had. For seven years (1968–75), experimenting on cats, he investigated the cerebellum and the ways in which it communicated with the cortex of both hemispheres of the brain.

At age seventy-two Eccles gave up experimental work when he and Helena moved to Contra, a picturesque village near Locarno in an Italian-speaking Swiss canton. There he focused on his writing, travelled and lectured widely, and campaigned to help avert nuclear war. He was appointed AC in 1990. Self-assured, extroverted, and combative, he renewed his quest for a scientific basis for seeing humans as possessing both mind and body, putting him at odds with the world view of most of his peers. Undeterred and anticipating the ideas of the physicist Sir Roger Penrose, he turned to quantum physics for an explanation, postulating that the human brain may be some kind of quantum computer and the conscious human mind a unitary quantum probability field.

In his How the Self Controls Its Brain (1994), Eccles described minds as residing in anatomical structures in the cortex which he calls psychons, mental units that rely on quantum mechanics to give us an escape from determinism and allow free will. This model depicts psychons as clusters of dendrites of the pyramidal cells in the neocortex, which can be switched on so as to produce a coherent quantum mechanical field. When the myriad of dendrons across the neocortex are activated and become psychons, consciousness arises. Because the psychons are quantum mechanical, and have both non-local and instantaneous connections, this places the mind at the controls of a powerful quantum computer. It is the sort of machine a ghost might operate, Eccles said, turning this epithet back on his critics. This revolutionary idea opened the door to a fresh approach to dualism. Eccles told readers that ‘the mind–brain problem has been … a very long journey, a long haul, until now’ (Eccles 1994, x). And with that, near the end of his life, he considered his long journey complete. Yet had he used more neutral language—elsewhere he uses the term neural-mental units—critics might have been less hostile to what they saw as a medieval way of thinking. Although his philosophical ideas were largely ignored, later work lent credence to his claims about dualism. Philosophers and scientists such as David Chalmers, Thomas Nagel, Henry Stapp, and Penrose have each accepted some form of dualism.

For all his prodigious intellect, Eccles worked exclusively within the Western intellectual tradition, with no traces of eastern approaches to the mind–body connection, despite their long history of using the mind as the tool to understand itself. He seemed similarly immune to any ethical problem in experimenting on creatures that, by his own reasoning, might possess conscious minds. In How the Self Controls Its Brain he argued that only humans have selves.

The final list of Eccles’s works runs to 642 titles and amounts to 14,062 pages, including fourteen books. Personally, he radiated mental and physical energy. He never retired and always put his personal quest above all else, his long hours of work being supported by ample supplies of chocolate and coffee. Although genial, even cheeky, he was also impatient and quick to anger. Bitterness lingered in his personal life and in his later years he requested no further family contact. His first wife and children were notably absent from his unfinished autobiography. In his dying days, he was visited in the local Catholic hospital by his daughter Mary. They had a moving meeting, with forgiveness offered and accepted for past misdeeds and harsh words. Mary reminded him of the words uttered to him by Sherrington just days before his mentor died: ‘All that is left Jack is the soul,’ to which her father replied ‘Yes, that’s right’ (Mennis 2003, 53).

Eccles died in Locarno on 2 May 1997, and was buried the next day in a nearby graveyard. He was survived by Helena, co-author of some forty of his papers and sole inheritor of his estate, and the five daughters and four sons of his first marriage. A portrait by Judy Cassab, commissioned by the John Curtin School of Medical Research, appeared on an Australian postage stamp in 2012. The Eccles Institute of Neuroscience at the ANU is named after him. His private library, letters, and papers were bequeathed to an archive of the history of medicine at Heinrich Heine University, Düsseldorf, which also acquired his chair and desk.

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Bell, Andrew, Bryn Davies, and Habib Ammari. ‘Bernhard Riemann, the Ear, and an Atom of Consciousness.’ Foundations of Science 27. Published ahead of print, 29 July 2021. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10699-021-09813-1. Copy held on ADB file
  • Curtis, David R., and Anderson, Per. ‘John Carew Eccles 1903–1997.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 13. no. 4 (February 2001): 439–73
  • Eccles, John C. ‘My Scientific Odyssey.’ Annual Review of Physiology 39 (March 1977): 1–18
  • Eccles, Helena, and Biersack Hans J., (eds). Sir John Eccles in Memoriam: A Tireless Warrior for Dualism. Landsberg: Ecomed, 2000
  • Eccles, John C. How the Self Controls Its Brain.  Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1994
  • Mennis, Mary R. The Book of Eccles: A Portrait of Sir John Eccles, Australian Nobel Laureate and Scientist, 1903–1997. Aspley, Qld: Lalong Enterprises, 2003
  • National Library of Australia. MS 9330, Papers of Sir John Eccles, 1903–2007
  • Popper, Karl R. and John C. Eccles. The Self and Its Brain. Berlin: Springer International, 1977
  • Stuart, Douglas G., ed. The Contributions of John Carew Eccles to Contemporary Neuroscience: Progress in Neurobiology 78, nos. 3–5 (February-April 2006): 135–326

Citation details

Andrew Bell, 'Eccles, Sir John Carew (Jack) (1903–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/eccles-sir-john-carew-jack-338/text40217, published online 2022, accessed online 19 June 2024.

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