Alan Hodgkin

Sir Alan Lloyd Hodgkin OM KBE PRS[1] (5 February 1914 – 20 December 1998) was an English physiologist and biophysicist, who shared the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Andrew Huxley and John Eccles.

Sir Alan Lloyd Hodgkin

Born(1914-02-05)5 February 1914
Died20 December 1998(1998-12-20) (aged 84)
Cambridge, England
EducationThe Downs School
Gresham's School
Alma materUniversity of Cambridge
Known forHodgkin–Huxley model
Spouse(s)Marion Rous
ChildrenSarah, Deborah, Jonathan Hodgkin, and Rachel
Scientific career

Early life and education

Hodgkin was born in Banbury, Oxfordshire, on 5 February 1914. He was the oldest of three sons of Quakers George Hodgkin and Mary Wilson Hodgkin. His father was the son of Thomas Hodgkin and had read for the Natural Science Tripos at Cambridge where he had befriended electrophysiologist Keith Lucas.[2] Because of poor eyesight he was unable to study medicine and eventually ended up working for a bank in Banbury. As members of the Society of Friends, George and Mary opposed the Military Service Act of 1916 and had to endure a great deal of abuse from their local community, including an attempt to throw George in one of the town canals.[3] In 1916 George Hodgkin travelled to Armenia as part of an investigation of distress. Moved by the misery and suffering of Armenian refugees he attempted to go back there in 1918 on a route through the Persian Gulf (as the northern route was closed because of the October Revolution in Russia). He died of dysentery in Baghdad on 24 June 1918, just a few weeks after his youngest son, Keith, had been born.[4]

From an early life on Hodgkin and his brothers were encouraged to explore the country around their home, which instilled in Alan a strong interest in Natural History, particularly ornithology. At the age of 15, he helped Wilfred Backhouse Alexander with surveys of heronries and later, at Gresham's School, he overlapped and spent a lot of time with David Lack.[5][6] In 1930, he was the winner of a bronze medal in the Public Schools Essay Competition organised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.[7]

Alan started his education at The Downs School where his contemporaries included future scientists Frederick Sanger, Alec Bangham, "neither outstandingly brilliant at school" according to Hodgkin,[8] as well as future artists Lawrence Gowing and Kenneth Rowntree. After the Downs School, he went on to Gresham's School where he overlapped with future composer Benjamin Britten as well as Maury Meiklejohn.[9] He ended up receiving a scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge in Botany, Zoology and Chemistry.[10]

Between school and college, he spent May 1932 at the Freshwater Biological Station at Wray Castle based on a recommendation of his future Director of Studies at Trinity, Carl Pantin.[11] After Wray Castle, he spent two months with a German family in Frankfurt as "in those days it was thought highly desirable that anyone intending to read science should have a reasonable knowledge of German."[12] After his return to England in early August 1932, his mother Mary was remarried to Lionel Smith (1880–1972),[13] the eldest son of A. L. Smith, whose daughter Dorothy was also married to Alan's uncle Robert Howard Hodgkin.[14]

In autumn of 1932 Hodgkin started as a freshman scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge where his friends included classicists John Raven and Michael Grant, fellow-scientists Richard Synge and John H. Humphrey[15], as well as Polly and David Hill, the children of Nobel Laureate Archibald Hill[16][17]. He took Physiology with Chemistry and Zoology for the first two years, including lectures by Nobel Laureate E.D. Adrian.[18] For Part II of the tripos he decided to focus on physiology instead of zoology. Nevertheless, he participated in a zoological expedition to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco led by John Pringle in 1934.[19] He finished Part II of the tripos in July 1935 and stayed at Trinity as a research fellow.[20]

During his studies, Hodgkin, who described himself as "having been brought up as a supporter of the British Labour Party"[21] was friends with communists[22] and actively participated in distribution of Anti-War pamphlets.[23] At Cambridge, he knew James Klugmann[24] and John Cornford,[25] but he emphasised in his autobiography that none of his friends "made any serious effort to convert me [to Communism], either then or later."[26] From 1935–1937, Hodgkin was a member of the Cambridge Apostles.[27]

Pre-war research

Hodgkin started conducting experiments on how electrical activity is transmitted in the sciatic nerve of frogs in July 1934.[28] He found that a nerve impulse arriving at a cold or compression block, can decrease the electrical threshold beyond the block, suggesting that the impulse produces a spread of an electrotonic potential in the nerve beyond the block.[29] In 1936, Hodgkin was invited by Herbert Gasser, then director of the Rockefeller Institute in New York City, to work in his laboratory during 1937–38. There he met Rafael Lorente de Nó[30] and Kenneth Stewart Cole with whom he ended up publishing a paper.[31] During that year he also spent time at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory where he was introduced to the squid giant axon,[32] which ended up being the model system with which he conducted most of the research that eventually led to his Nobel Prize. In spring 1938 he visited Joseph Erlanger at Washington University in St. Louis who told him he would take Hodgkin's local circuit theory of nerve impulse propagation seriously if he could show that altering the resistance of the fluid outside a nerve fibre made a difference to the velocity of nerve impulse conduction.[33] Working with single nerve fibres from shore crabs and squids, he showed that the conduction rate was much faster in sea water than in oil, providing strong evidence for the local circuit theory.[34]

After his return to Cambridge he started collaborating with Andrew Huxley who had entered Trinity as a freshman in 1935, three years after Hodgkin.[35] With a £300 equipment grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Hodgkin managed to set up a similar physiology setup to the one he had worked with at the Rockefeller Institute. He moved all his equipment to the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in July 1939.[36] There, he and Huxley managed to insert a fine cannula into the giant axon of squids and record action potentials from inside the nerve fibre. They sent a short note of their success to Nature just before the outbreak of World War II.[37]

War-time activities

Despite his Quaker upbringing, Hodgkin was eager to join the war effort as contact with the Nazis during his stay in Germany in 1932 had removed all his pacifist beliefs. Hist first post was at the Royal Aircraft Establishment where he worked on issues in Aviation Medicine, such as oxygen supply for pilots at high altitude and the decompression sickness caused by nitrogen bubbles coming out of the blood.[38] In February 1940 he transferred to the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) where he worked on the development of centimetric radar, including the design of the Village Inn AGLT airborne gun-laying system. He was a member of E.G. Bowen's group in St Athan in South Wales and lived in a local guest house together with John Pringle and Robert Hanbury Brown. The group moved to Swanage in May 1940 where Pringle replaced Bowen as leader of the group.[39] In March 1941, Hodgkin flew on the test flight of a Bristol Blenheim fitted with the first airborne centimetric radar system.

Providing a readable account of the little-known piece of military history that he was a part of during World War II was a main motivation for Hodgkin to write his autobiography Chance and Design: Reminiscences of Science in Peace and War.[40]

Post-war research and career

As the war ended in 1945, he joined the faculty of physiology department in Cambridge University. He was the Foulerton Professor of the Royal Society between 1951 and 1969. He served on the Royal Society Council from 1958 to 1960 and on the Medical Research Council from 1959 to 1963. He was foreign secretary of the Physiological Society from 1961 to 1967. He was appointed the John Humphrey Plummer Professor of Biophysics at Cambridge University in 1970. He also held additional administrative posts such as Chancellor, University of Leicester, from 1971 to 1984, and Master, Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1978 to 1985.


With Andrew Fielding Huxley, Hodgkin worked on experimental measurements and developed an action potential theory representing one of the earliest applications of a technique of electrophysiology, known as the "voltage clamp". The second critical element of their research was the use of the giant axon of the veined squid (Loligo forbesii),[41] which enabled them to record ionic currents as they would not have been able to do in almost any other neuron, such cells being too small to study using the techniques of the time. The experiments started at the University of Cambridge, beginning in 1935 with frog sciatic nerve, and soon after they continued their work using squid giant axons at the Marine Biological Association Laboratory in Plymouth. In 1939, reporting work done in Plymouth, Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley published a short paper in the journal Nature announcing their achievement of recording action potentials from inside a nerve fibre.[42] Research was interrupted by World War II but after resuming their experimental work in Plymouth, the pair published their theory in 1952 in a series of publications.[41][43][44][45][46]

With Huxley, he established the propagation mechanism of nerve impulse called "action potentials", the electrical impulses which enable the activity of an organism to be coordinated by a central nervous system. In addition Hodgkin and Huxley's findings led them to hypothesize the existence of ion channels on cell membranes, which were confirmed only decades later. Confirmation of ion channels came with the development of the patch clamp leading to a Nobel prize in 1991 for Erwin Neher and Bert Sakmann, and in 2003 for Roderick MacKinnon.[47]

Hodgkin was also the discoverer of cell membrane depolarisation sequence now known as the Hodgkin cycle.[48]


  • The Conduction of the Nervous Impulse (1964)
  • Chance and Design: Reminiscences of Science in Peace and War (1992)

Awards and honours

Alan Lloyd Hodgkin, Andrew Fielding Huxley, and John Carew Eccles (for his research on synapses) were jointly awarded the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries concerning the ionic mechanisms involved in excitation and inhibition in the peripheral and central portions of the nerve cell membrane".[49] Hodgkin was knighted (KCB) in 1972 and appointed to the Order of Merit in 1973. He was elected President of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom in 1966. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1948,[1] and served as President of the Royal Society (PRS) from 1970 to 1975.[1] The Royal Society awarded him its Royal Medal in 1958 and Copley Medal in 1965. He was also elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Philosophical Society, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, Deutsche Akademie, and Indian National Science Academy. A portrait of Hodgkin by Michael Noakes hangs in Trinity College's collection.[50] He was elected a Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences in 1964.[51]

Personal life

During his stay at the Rockefeller Institute in 1937, Hodgkin got to know the American pathologist Francis Peyton Rous[52] who was later awarded the 1966 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.[53] When Rous invited him for dinner to his home, Hodgkin got to know Rous' daughter, Marni, who was then a student at Swarthmore College.[54] He proposed to her before going back to England in 1938, but she rejected him.[55] Eventually, they did get married when they met again in 1944. Marni became Children's Book Editor at Macmillan Publishing Company and a successful writer of children's literature, including Young Winter's Tales and Dead Indeed. They had three daughters, Sarah, Deborah, and Rachel, and a son Jonathan. Jonathan Hodgkin became a molecular biologist at Cambridge University. Deborah Hodgkin is also a successful psychologist.

Thomas Hodgkin (1798–1866), who first described Hodgkin's lymphoma, was Alan Hodgkin's ancestor.[56]


Hodgkin died in 1998 in Cambridge.[57]


  1. Huxley, Andrew (2000). "Sir Alan Lloyd Hodgkin, O.M., K.B.E. 5 February 1914 – 20 December 1998: Elected F.R.S. 1948". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 46: 219–241. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1999.0081.
  2. Hodgkin 1992, p. 5
  3. Hodgkin 1992, pp. 7–9
  4. Hodgkin 1992, p. 10
  5. Hodgkin 1992, pp. 11–12
  6. Hodgkin, Alan (1983). "Beginning: Some Reminiscences of my early life (1914–1947)". Annual Review of Physiology. 45: 1–16. doi:10.1146/ PMID 6342510.
  7. Protection of Birds Measures Urged By Royal Society in The Times, Saturday, 29 March 1930; pg. 14; Issue 45474; col C
  8. Hodgkin 1992, p. 25
  9. Hodgkin 1992, pp. 27–29
  10. Hodgkin 1992, p. 30
  11. Hodgkin 1992, p. 31
  12. Hodgkin 1992, p. 34
  14. Hodgkin 1992, p. 40
  15. Hodgkin 1992, p. 49
  16. Hodgkin 1992, pp. 11–12
  17. Hodgkin, Alan (1983). "Beginning: Some Reminiscences of my early life (1914–1947)". Annual Review of Physiology. 45: 1–16. doi:10.1146/ PMID 6342510.
  18. Hodgkin 1992, p. 50
  19. Hodgkin 1992, p. 55
  20. Hodgkin 1992, p. 66
  21. Hodgkin 1992, p. 38
  22. Hodgkin 1992, p. 48
  23. Hodgkin 1992, p. 53
  24. Hodgkin 1992, p. 79
  25. Hodgkin 1992, pp. 83–87
  26. Hodgkin 1992, p. 80
  27. Hodgkin 1992, p. 87
  28. Hodgkin 1992, p. 63
  29. Hodgkin, Alan (1937). "Evidence for Electrical Transmission in Nerve. Part I". The Journal of Physiology. 90 (2): 183–210. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.1937.sp003507. PMC 1395060. PMID 16994885.
  30. Hodgkin 1992, p. 92
  31. Cole, Kenneth; Hodgkin, Alan (1939). "Membrane and Protoplasm Resistance in the Squid Giant Axon". The Journal of General Physiology. 22 (5): 671–687. doi:10.1085/jgp.22.5.671. PMC 2142005. PMID 19873126.
  32. Hodgkin, Alan (1983). "Beginning: Some Reminiscences of my early life (1914–1947)". Annual Review of Physiology. 45: 1–16. doi:10.1146/ PMID 6342510.
  33. Hodgkin 1992, p. 113
  34. Hodgkin, Alan (1939). "The Relation between Conduction Velocity and the Electrical Resistance outside a Nerve Fibre". The Journal of Physiology. 94 (4): 560–570. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.1939.sp003702. PMC 1393884. PMID 16995066.
  35. Huxley, Andrew (2004). "Andrew Huxley". In Squire, Larry R. (ed.). The history of neuroscience in autobiography. Washington DC: Society for Neuroscience. pp. 282–318. ISBN 0-12-660246-8.
  36. Hodgkin, Alan (1976). "Chance and Design in Electrophysiology: An Informal Account of Certain Experiments on Nerve Carried out between 1934 and 1952". Journal of Physiology. 263 (1): 1–21. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.1976.sp011620. PMC 1307686. PMID 796420.
  37. Hodgkin, A. L.; Huxley, A. F. (1939). "Action Potentials Recorded from Inside a Nerve Fibre". Nature. 144 (3651): 710–711. Bibcode:1939Natur.144..710H. doi:10.1038/144710a0.
  38. Hodgkin 1992, p. 140
  39. Hodgkin 1992, pp. 141–156
  40. Hodgkin 1992, pp. ix–xi
  41. Hodgkin, AL; Huxley, AF; Katz, B (1952). "Measurement of current-voltage relations in the membrane of the giant axon of Loligo". The Journal of Physiology. 116 (4): 424–48. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.1952.sp004716. PMC 1392219. PMID 14946712.
  42. Hodgkin, A. L.; Huxley, A. F. (1939). "Action Potentials Recorded from Inside a Nerve Fibre". Nature. 144 (3651): 710–711. Bibcode:1939Natur.144..710H. doi:10.1038/144710a0.
  43. Hodgkin, AL; Huxley, AF (1952). "The dual effect of membrane potential on sodium conductance in the giant axon of Loligo". The Journal of Physiology. 116 (4): 497–506. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.1952.sp004719. PMC 1392212. PMID 14946715.
  44. Hodgkin, AL; Huxley, AF (1952). "The components of membrane conductance in the giant axon of Loligo". The Journal of Physiology. 116 (4): 473–96. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.1952.sp004718. PMC 1392209. PMID 14946714.
  45. Hodgkin, AL; Huxley, AF (1952). "A quantitative description of membrane current and its application to conduction and excitation in nerve". The Journal of Physiology. 117 (4): 500–44. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.1952.sp004764. PMC 1392413. PMID 12991237.
  46. Hodgkin, AL; Huxley, AF (1952). "Propagation of electrical signals along giant nerve fibers". Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B. 140 (899): 177–83. Bibcode:1952RSPSB.140..177H. doi:10.1098/rspb.1952.0054. PMID 13003922.
  47. Schwiening, C. J. (2012). "A brief historical perspective: Hodgkin and Huxley". The Journal of Physiology. 590 (11): 2571–2575. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2012.230458. PMC 3424716. PMID 22787170.
  48. Noble, D. (2010). "Biophysics and systems biology". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences. 368 (1914): 1125–1139. Bibcode:2010RSPTA.368.1125N. doi:10.1098/rsta.2009.0245. PMC 3263808. PMID 20123750.
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  55. Hodgkin 1992, p. 112
  56. Saxon, Wolfgang (22 December 1998). "Sir Alan Lloyd Hodgkin, 84, A Nobelist in Nerve Research". The New York Times.
  57. Lamb, Trevor (1999). "Obituary: Alan Hodgkin (1914–98)". Nature. 397 (6715): 112. Bibcode:1999Natur.397..112L. doi:10.1038/16362. PMID 9923671.


  • Hodgkin, Alan (1992). Chance & Design - Reminiscences of Science in Peace and War. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521456036.
Academic offices
Preceded by
The Lord Butler of Saffron Walden
Master of Trinity College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
Sir Andrew Huxley
Preceded by
The Lord Adrian
Chancellor of the University of Leicester
Succeeded by
Sir George Porter
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