Adolf Beck

Adolf Abraham Beck was born on January 1st, 1863 in Krakow to a poor family of a Jewish craftsman. He was a Polish neurophysiologist, professor of the Jan Kazimierz University in Lwów, co-discoverer of action potentials of the brain and pioneer in encephalography.

He graduated from a gymnasium and from the Jagiellonian University in his hometown. Already as a student (since 1886) he had worked in the Department of Physiology of the Jagiellonian University under the guidance of the famous Polish physiologist Napoleon Nikodem Cybulski (1854 – 1919) and was his assistant in the years 1889 – 1892. The main aim of his studies was the use of electrophysiological methods to localize brain functions. In this period, he published many articles focused on the nervous system physiology. In 1887, together with Professor Cybulski, he reported the results of his research in the paper “Studies of the taste sensation in a person without the tongue, patient J.R. in the Professor Rydygier’s Clinic of Surgery” and a year later, the paper “On excitability of different locations on the same nerve” in Dissertations of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences in Krakow. In 1890 Adolf Beck started a series of articles on electrical phenomena in the brain and in 1891 published his Doctor’s Thesis “The determination of localizations in the brain and spinal cord with the aid of electrical phenomena [Dissertations of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences AAS 21, p. 187-232]. This work provided the framework for a new method of study, i.e. encephalography and other neurophysiological methods. The publication of that article by a young Polish scientist, an abstract of which appeared in German in Zentralblatt für Physiologie sparked a response of eminent European researchers: Fleisch v. Marxov from Vienna and Englishmen Francis Gotch, Victor Horsley and Richard Caton who claimed the right of priority to those observations. Beck replied to all these objections in the article „Die Ströme der Nervenzentren”. Many authors emphasized in their works that Beck’s thesis contained a more precise description of the study procedures and more detailed results than a short report by Richard Caton of 1875, who observed in his experiments on rabbits and monkeys the deflection of the galvanometer’s needle, but had no means of photographic documentation of these studies, yet. In 1893 Adolf Beck published “A contribution to physiology of the lumbar spinal cord in frogs” (Dissertations of AAS 24 p. 56-72).

A new period in his career began in 1894 when he was granted veniam legendi (exclusive right to lecture) in physiology at the Faculty of Medicine of the Jagiellonian University based on the thesis “On blood pressure in veins”. Shortly thereafter, at the age of 32 years he was appointed an associate professor and the head of the newly established Department of Physiology at the Faculty of Medicine of the Jan Kazimierz University in Lwów and three years later he was promoted to a full professor. In this period, he published an article “The measurements of excitability of different locations on a nerve with the use of a condenser”, in which he presented investigations of the phrenic nerve and sympathetic nerve. He visited the Zoological Station in Naples in 1898, where he carried out research on electrical phenomena in the central nervous system and on retinal action potentials. In 1900 Professor Adolf Beck was elected the Vice-president of the Lwów Medical Society, and a year later the President of this society. In the years 1905 – 1910, Adolf Beck’s research focused on the examination of electrical phenomena of the cortex after its partial destruction. A part of the results of his experiments was published in a comprehensive treatise “Electrical phenomena of the brain cortex after its partial damage. A contribution to the localization of pain sensation.” (Dissertations AAS 45, p. 319-355; 1906).

While working at the University of Lwów, Adolf Beck was engaged in didactic and academic activity. He was the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in 1903 – 1904 and the Rector of the University of Lwów in 1912 – 1915. In 1914, Beck, who was the Rector in the second term at that time, firmly defended his colleagues and the property of the university against attempts of Russian occupying authorities. As a result, he was deported as a prisoner to Kiev from where he returned as a part of a prisoner exchange in 1916.

Adolf Beck is the author and co-author of many books. The book “Physiology of the Central Nervous System” fulfilled all requirements of a contemporary handbook of neurophysiology. It included an introduction devoted to histology of the central nervous system, definition of basic phenomena and concepts in physiology and descriptions of functional anatomy. He published the handbook “Human Physiology” together with Napoleon Cybulski in 1915 and as the only author in 1922. He was elected a corresponding member of The Third Department of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1913 and an acting member of The Fourth Department of the Polish Academy of Sciences in 1930.

Privately, Adolf Beck took great care of development and education of his children. He was an enthusiast of art and music. He held musical evenings at his home where he played the violin while his wife played the piano. He was also engaged in voluntary work. Apart from participation in many domestic and foreign scientific societies, he was also active in The Folk High School Society. This was a society of particular merit to the promotion of education among the general public. He was the President of the society “Unification” aiming to unify students independently of their ancestry or religion. He retired at the age of 67. The outbreak of the Second World War found him in Lviv. He survived Soviet occupation and German invasion of the city.

Adolf Beck died in Lviv in 1942 committing a suicide by taking potassium cyanide to avoid being sent to a concentration camp.

See also:

  1. Brazier Mary A. B. (1961), A history of the electrical activity of the brain: the first half century, London: Pitman Medical Publishing Company Ltd. UK.
  2. Michalak Sławomir (2001), Adolf Beck. Dostępne: – opublikowane jako: Michalak Sławomir (2001), Adolf Beck i jego przyczynek dla stworzenia podstaw neurofizjologii, Neuroskop 2001, t. 1, nr 3, s. 167-171.
  3. Gazeta o padaczce nr 40 (2006) z cyklu „Odkrywcy mózgu”

Prepared by: Jan Celichowski