My watch list  

Ralph W. Gerard

General Systems Theory
20th century
Name: Ralph Waldo Gerard
Birth: October 7 1900, Harvey, Illinois, USA
Death: February 17 1974, USA
School/tradition: University of Chicago
Main interests: Neurophysiologist, behavioral science and general systems theory
Notable ideas: Nerve metabolism, psycho pharmacology, and biological bases of schizophrenia
Influences: Anton Carlson, Archibald Hill, Ralph Lillie, Otto Meyerhof and Julius Stieglitz

Ralph Waldo Gerard (October 7 1900 - February 17 1974) was an American neurophysiologist and behavioral scientist known for his wide-ranging work on the nervous system, nerve metabolism, psychopharmacology, and biological bases of schizophrenia.[1]



Gerard was born in Harvey, Illinois. He was an uncommon intellectual and grew very interested in science through his father Maurice Gerard. His father came to America from Europe to work as an engineering consultant after receiving an engineering degree in Great Britain. Maurice encouraged Ralph in mathematics and chess. In his teens, Ralph beat the American chess champion playing simultaneous matches in Chicago. He completed high school in two years and entered the University of Chicago at the age of fifteen.[2]

In Chicago, Gerard studied chemistry and physiology. In chemistry, he was influenced by Julius Stieglitz and in physiology and neurophysiology he was influenced by Anton Carlson and Ralph Lillie. He received his B.S. in 1919 and doctorate in physiology in 1921 at the University of Chicago. Shortly thereafter he married the psychiatrist Margaret Wilson, who had just completed her doctorate in neuroanatomy. She became an outstanding practitioner of child psychiatry until her death in 1954.[3] Gerard started as professor of physiology at the University of South Dakota, but returned to the Rush Medical College to finish his medical training where he received his M.D. degree in 1925. Afterwards he went to Europe on a National Research Council Fellowship for two years to work in biophysics and biochemistry with A. V. Hill in London and Otto Meyerhof in Kiel.[4]

He returned to the University of Chicago in 1928 where he worked in the Department of Physiology for twenty-five years until 1952. For two years he was professor of neurophysiology and physiology in the College of Medicine, at the University of Illinois. In 1954 Gerard was Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford California. In January 1955 he married Leona Bachrach Chalkey, whom he knew since high school. They moved to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he helped to establish the Mental Health Research Institute. In the next years, the institute grew to be one of the outstanding behavioral and psychiatric research centers of the nation.

In the last phase of his active career he concentrated on education.[5] He helped to organize the newly forming Irvine campus of the University of California, and became its first Dean of its Graduate Division until his retirement in 1970. Even in this phase Gerard did not abandon his love of the neurosciences; he initiated the activities, under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, which led to the founding of the highly successful Society for Neuroscience. He was made Honorary President of this Society. At the age of seventy he retired to dedicate himself to civil affairs.

Gerard received many honors, including a medal from Charles University in Prague, the Order of the White Lion (4th class) of Czechoslovakia, honorary membership in the American Psychiatric Association and the Pan Hellenic Medical Association; membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences; a D.Sc. from the University of Maryland in 1952; and an honorary M.D. from the University of Leiden in 1962, at the time of the XXII international Congress of Physiological Sciences.[6]


Gerard devoted over fifty years of his life to scientific discovery and education. His scientific contributions ranged from the metabolism and heat production of nerve in the 1920s to contemplations on behavioral and social sciences in the 1940s.[7] From his neurophysiological research in the 1930s to his schizophrenia research from the 1950s.[8] One of his most pervasive contributions with G. Ling in 1949 was the introduction of the intracellular recording capillary microelectrode.[9] In total Gerard published over 500 scientific papers and nine books. His former students were in the 1970s among the most distinguished leaders in contemporary neurobiology. He was clearly one of the most productive and distinguished neurobiologists of this century.[10]

Functions of the nervous system

During the middle decades of the 20th century, study of the nervous system became a mayor component of biological research, growing from a strong base in morphology and physiology to involve all of the biological and behavioral sciences. Gerard was deeply interested in the function of the nervous system at the most complex levels.

Gerard started his pioneering research leading in physiology in the 1920s with Archibald Hill in the University in London. This research in nerve physiology focused on nerve metabolism and the heat production of nerve. This led to the recognition that the conduction of the nerve impulse depended on biochemical processes along the nerve.[11] Back at the University of Chicago in 1928 Ralph Gerard posed basic questions and stimulated critical research. His research was the pioneering work on many problems including:

  • Effects of electrical stimulation and drugs on the formation of memory.
  • Steady potentials in neuron masses:
  • Evoked brain potentials and the demonstration that visual, auditory, and other impulses reach many structures, such as cerebellum;
  • Demonstration of an extended “fixation time” for establishing a memory trace.
  • An integrative approach to the nervous system and behavior.[12]

Through his unresting pursuit of fundamental knowledge Gerard taught how cells work and he helped to understand the organization and integrative functions of nerve cells. Further studies in neurophysiology included investigations [13] of electrical activity of the brain during sleep and the nature of brain waves, and the regeneration in the central nervous system following injury. In order to examine the electrical activity of single nerve cells, he developed microelectrode recording procedures, an universally used capillary microelectrode. This introduction of intracellular recording microelectorde was a technical development, that revolutionized research in neurobiology [14]

American Physiological Society

Ralph W. Gerard was the 24th President of the American Physiological Society from 1951 to 1952. He had been elected to this Society in 1927 and to the Societies Council in 1949. Gerard became president in 1951, in the time he was leading the Department of Physiology at the University of Chicago in 1928. Gerard presided the fall meeting in Salt Lake City in 1951 and the spring meeting in New York City in 1952.

As president he was responsible for establishing the first standing committees of the Society, and for initiating an ambitious Survey of Physiological Sciences. He was the author of the survey report, Mirror to Physiology, published by American Physiological Society in 1958. In the year of his presidency he got to deal with the sensitive issues of animal experimentation and "loyalty clearance" of scientists.

General systems theory

In the 1940s Gerard had started contemplating on philosophical and social problems that lay beyond neuroscience.[15] He started writing about subjects like the role of pure science, higher levels of integration, the biological basis of imagination, the scope of science, science and the public, his biologist's view of society and the organization of science. This interests brought him to intended the Macy conferences in 1953, which lead to the foundation of cybernetics.

On invitation of Ralph W. Tyler in 1954 Gerard became Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, California. The Center was that year established by the Ford Foundation, and aimed to develop basic knowledge of human behavior through the behavioral sciences. Gerard was among the first group of fellows along with Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Kenneth Boulding, and Anatol Rapoport. In the fall of 1954 the four of them where sitting around a lunch table one day,[16] and it became clear that they all converging on something like general systems from different directions. Bertalanffy's thoughts certainly seeming to be the most advanced. Somebody said let's form a society, and in December that year they founder the Society for General Systems Research.

Gerards contributions to the systems movement started with two articles in the first General Systems Yearbook of 1956: A Biologist's View of Society, a reprinted article from Common Cause, 1950, and The Rights of Man, a Biological Approach. On invitation of James Grier Miller Gerard moved with Anatol Rapoport to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, to found the Mental Health Research Institute.

Society for Neuroscience

Ralph W. Gerard was cofounder of the Society for Neuroscience. He served as Honorary President from 1970 until his death in 1974. This society was initiated to advance the understanding of the brain and the nervous system, and to provide professional development activities, information, and educational resources.

The Society for Neuroscience grew as a nonprofit organization, with 37,000 members in 2005. It is the world’s largest organization of scientists devoted to the study of the brain. The Society for Neuroscience awards the Ralph W. Gerard Prize in Neuroscience to honor outstanding contributions to neuroscience. The highly prestigious prize is awarded annually since 1978. Patricia Goldman-Rakic and Pasko Rakic got this award in 2002.


Gerard wrote some 500 scientific papers and nine books... about the biology of language, ethics, biology and cultural evolution, education, and the impact of science on public policies.[17] Gerard authored nine books, among them:

  • 1940, Unresting Cells
  • 1941, Body Functions
  • 1950, Methods in Medical Research
  • 1952, Food For Life
  • 1958, Mirror to Physiology
  • 1959, Psychopharmacology; the Problem of Evaluation, (with Cole)

And he wrote many research and review publications, some of his more important articles were [18]:

  • 1929, E.G. Holmes & R.W. Gerard, Studies on nerve metabolism: Carbohydrate metabolism of resting mammalian nerve, in: Biochem J., 23, p.738-47.
  • 1927, R.W. Gerard, Archibal Hill & Y. Zotterman, The effect of frequency of simulations on the heat production of the nerve, in: J. Physiol. 63, p.130-43.
  • 1927, R.W.Gerard & Otto Meyerhoff, Studies on nerve metabolism. III. Chemismus and intermediarprozess, in: Biochem. Z. 191, p.125-46.
  • 1949, G. Ling & R.W. Gerard, The normal membrane potential of frog sartorius fibers, in: J. Cell. Comp. Physiol., 34, p.383-96.
  • 1952, L.G. Abood, R.W. Gerard, J. Banks & R.D. Tschirgi, Substrate and enzyme distribution in cells and cell fractions of the nervous system, in: Am J Physiol. 168, p.728-38.
  • 1952, L.G. Abood, R.W. Gerard & S. Ochs, Electrical stimulation of metabolism of homogenates and particulates, in: Am J Physiol. 171, p.134-9.
  • 1952, R.W. Gerard, By-ways of the investigator: thoughts on becoming an elder statesman. Past president's address, in: Am. J. Physiol. 171: 695-703, 1952.
  • 1952, R.W. Gerard, Prefatory chapter: the organization of science, in: Annu. Rev. Physiol., 14: 1-12, 1952.
  • 1953, R.W. Gerard, Central excitation and inhibition, in: Cybernetics, Heinz von Foerster & Margaret Mead (ed.), pp.127-50. Newe York: Joshiah Macy Jr. Foundations.
  • 1953, H.P. Jenerick & R.W. Gerard, Membrane potential and threshold of single muscle fibers, in: J. Cell. Comp. Physiol., 42, p.79-102.
  • 1956, Gerard, R.W., Clyde Kluckhohn, Anatol Rapoport, Biological and cultural evolution: Some analogies and explorations, in: Behavioral Science 1: 6—34.
  • 1963, R.W. Gerard, International physiology. in: Physiologist 6: 332-334.

Literature about Ralph W. Gerard

  • 1982, Seymour S. Ketty, Ralph Waldo Gerard, October 7, 1900 - Februari 17, 1974, in: Biographical Memoirs V.53, National Academy of Sciences, (1982), pp.178.
  • 1980, Anonymous, Ralph W. Gerard (1900-1974), in: Physiologist 23(1): 3.
  • 1975, Obituary Ralph Waldo Gerard, in: Behavioral Science, Volume 20, Issue 1, p.1-8.
  • 1973, B. Libet & Orr E. Reynolds R. W. Gerard, born October 7, 1900 - died February 17, 1974. in: J. Neurophysiol. 37: 828-829, 1974. Reprint in: Physiologist 17: 165-168, 1974.
  • 1963, W.O. Fenn, History of the American Physiological Society: The Third Quarter Century, 1937-1962. Washington, DC. in: Am. Physiol. Soc., p. 23-26.


  1. ^ Online Archive of California, Guide to the Ralph Waldo Gerard Papers, 2006
  2. ^ Seymour S. Ketty, Ralph Waldo Gerard, October 7, 1900 - February 17, 1974, in: Biographical Memoirs V.53, National Academy of Sciences, 1982, pp.178.
  3. ^ Seymour S. Ketty, p.179.
  4. ^ American Physiological Society, 24th APS President (1951-1952) Ralph W. Gerard (1900-1974), website 2007.
  5. ^ B. Libet & Orr E. Reynolds, R. W. Gerard, in: Physiologist 17 (1974), p.167.
  6. ^ Ralph W. Gerard (1900-1974)], in: The Physiologist, 23(1): 3, 1980.
  7. ^ American Physiological Society, 2007
  8. ^ Online Archive of California, Guide to the Ralph Waldo Gerard Papers, 2006
  9. ^ The BioInfoBank in 2007 mentions as Gerard's most cited paper: G LING , R W GERARD, The normal membrane potential of frog sartorius fibers, in J Cell Physiol. (1949) Dec ;34 (3).
  10. ^ James L. McGaugh & Howard A. Schneiderman, Ralph Waldo Gerard, In Memoriam, March 1976, Website University of California, 2007.
  11. ^ Seymour S. Ketty, p.181.
  12. ^ Ralph W. Gerard (1900-1974)], in: The Physiologist, 23(1): 3, 1980
  13. ^ James L. McGaugh & Howard A. Schneiderman, Ralph Waldo Gerard, In Memoriam, March 1976, Website University of California, 2007.
  14. ^ B. Libet & Orr E. Reynolds, p.166.
  15. ^ Seymour, 1982, p.181.
  16. ^ Kenneth E. Boulding, in: Uncommon Sense, by Mark Davidson, Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1983, p.19.
  17. ^ A bibliography with about 175 articles of Gerards is given in Seymour S. Kety, 1982, p.198-210.
  18. ^ The BioInfoBank Gerard's most cited paper, 2007; American Physiological Society, 2007; Seymour S. Ketty, 1982, p.198-210.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Ralph_W._Gerard". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
Your browser is not current. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 does not support some functions on Chemie.DE