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BMJ 1994; 309 doi: (Published 09 July 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:122

While taking his research degree (a BSc, though it would now be called an MSc) David Whitteridge examined transmission in the ciliary ganglion - then of much interest in the controversy over the “spark” (electical) and “soup” (chemical) theories of communication between nerves. During the war he worked extensively on experimental blast injuries; this work, which was of great importance for the understanding of closed chest injury caused by high explosives, was carried out under wartime regulations and seems never to have been published.

After the war Whitteridge returned to Oxford and collaborated with Ludwig Guttmann at Stoke Mandeville Hospital at the time when Guttmann was revolutionising the treatment of spinal injuries. Together they studied the autonomic nervous system in patients with severe damage to the spinal cord and established that overdistension of hollow organs (particularly the bladder) may trigger massive peripheral vasoconstriction and hypertension; better understanding of the control of the peripheral circulation was most important in the rehabilitation of these patients and, particularly, in attempts to heal their frequent penetrating pressure sores. He then developed methods of studying the signals carried by single nerve fibres from the heart and lungs into the central nervous system.

In 1950 Whitteridge was appointed to the chair of physiology in Edinburgh and took over a department at a low ebb of activity and morale; by the time he returned to Oxford in 1968 it was internationally renowned. During his period in Edinburgh he had enormous influence in the medical school and was largely responsible for changing the dismissive attitude to the value of science in the understanding of human disease that was then prevalent. His work on cardiovascular control continued, but he began to develop an interest in the physiology of the central mechanisms of vision. His detailed work on the precise …

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