Archibald Hill

Archibald Vivian Hill CH OBE FRS[1] (26 September 1886 – 3 June 1977), known as A. V. Hill, was an English physiologist, one of the founders of the diverse disciplines of biophysics and operations research. He shared the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his elucidation of the production of heat and mechanical work in muscles.[2][3]

Archibald Vivian Hill
Born(1886-09-26)26 September 1886
Bristol, England
Died3 June 1977(1977-06-03) (aged 90)
Cambridge, England
NationalityUnited Kingdom
Alma materTrinity College, Cambridge
Known forMechanical work in muscles
Muscle contraction model
Founding biophysics
Hill equation (biochemistry)
AwardsNobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1922)
Royal Medal (1926)
Copley Medal (1948)
Scientific career
FieldsPhysiology and biophysics
InstitutionsCambridge University
University of Manchester
University College, London
Academic advisorsWalter Morley Fletcher
Notable studentsBernard C. Abbott
Te-Pei Feng
Ralph H. Fowler
Bernard Katz
He is notably the father of Polly Hill, David Keynes Hill, Maurice Hill, and the grandfather of Nicholas Humphrey.


Born in Bristol, he was educated at Blundell's School and graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge as third wrangler in the mathematics tripos before turning to physiology. While still an undergraduate at Trinity College, he derived in 1909[4] what came to be known as the Langmuir equation.[5] This is closely related to Michaelis-Menten kinetics. In this paper, Hill's first publication, he derived both the equilibrium form of the Langmuir equation, and also the exponential approach to equilibrium. The paper, written under the supervision of John Newport Langley, is a landmark in the history of receptor theory, because the context for the derivation was the binding of nicotine and curare to the "receptive substance" at the neuromuscular junction.

Hill made many exacting measurements of the heat released when skeletal muscles contract and relax. A key finding was that heat is produced during contraction, which requires investment of chemical energy, but not during relaxation, which is passive.[6] His earliest measurements used equipment left behind by the Swedish physiologist Magnus Blix, Hill measured a temperature rise of only 0.003 °C. After publication he learned that German physiologists had already reported on heat and muscle contraction and he went to Germany to learn more about their work. He continually improved his apparatus to make it more sensitive and to reduce the time lag between the heat released by the preparation and its recording by his thermocouple.

Hill is regarded, along with Hermann Helmholtz, as one of the founders of biophysics.

While a student he had enrolled in the Officers Training Course; he was a crack shot. In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, Hill because the musketry officer of the Cambridgeshire Regiment. The British made no effort to make use of their scientists.[7][8] At the end of 1915, while home on leave he was asked by Horace Darwin from the Ministry of Munitions to come for a day to advise them on how to train anti-aircraft gunners. On site, Hill immediately proposed a simple two mirror method to determine airplane's heights. Transferred to Munitions, he realized that the mirrors could measure where smoke shells burst and if he fit this data with the equations describing a shell's flight they could provide accurate range tables for anti-aircraft guns. To measure and compute he assembled a team of men too old for conscription, Ralph H. Fowler (a wounded officer), and lads too young for service including Douglas Hartree and Arthur Milne. Someone dubbed his motley group "Hill's Brigands", which they proudly adopted. Later in the war they also worked on locating enemy planes from their sound. He sped between their working sites on his beloved motorcycle. At the end of the war Major Hill issued certificates to more than one hundred Brigands. He was awarded an OBE.

Hill returned briefly to Cambridge in 1919 before taking the chair in physiology at the Victoria University of Manchester in 1920 in succession to William Stirling. Using himself as the subject he ran every morning from 7:15 to 10:30 he showed that running a dash relies on energy stores which afterwards are replenished by increased oxygen consumption. Paralleling the work of German Otto Fritz Meyerhof, Hill elucidated the processes whereby mechanical work is produced in muscles. The two shared the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for this work.[9] Hill introduced the concepts of maximal oxygen uptake and oxygen debt in 1922.[10][11]

In 1923 he succeeded Ernest Starling as professor of physiology at University College London, a few years later becoming a Royal Society Research professor there, where he remained until retirement in 1951. In 1933, he became with Lord Beveridge and Lord Rutherford a founder member and vice-president of the Academic Assistance Council (which in 1936 became the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning). By the start of the Second World War, the organisation had saved 900 academics (18 of whom went on to win Nobel Prizes) from Nazi persecution. He prominently displayed in his laboratory a toy figure of Adolf Hitler with saluting arm upraised, which he explained was in gratitude for all the scientists Germany had expelled, some of whom were now working with him.[12] Hill believed that "Laughter is the best detergent for nonsense".[13]

In 1935 he served with Patrick Blackett and Sir Henry Tizard on the committee that gave birth to radar. He was also biological secretary of the Royal Society; William Henry Bragg was president. Both had been frustrated by the delay in putting scientists to work in the previous war. The Royal Society collated a list of scientists and Hill represented the Society at the Ministry of Labor. When the war came Hill led a campaign to liberate refugee scientists who had been interned. He served as an independent Member of Parliament (MP) for Cambridge University from 1940 to 1945. In 1940 he was posted to the British Embassy in Washington to promote war research in the still neutral United States. He was authorized to swap secrets with the Americans, but this could not work: how do you place a value on another's secret? Hill saw the answer and persuaded the British to show the Americans everything they were working on (except for the atomic bomb). The mobilization of Allied scientist was one of the major successes in the war.[14]

After the war he rebuilt his laboratory at University College and vigorously carried on research.[15] In 1951 his advocacy was rewarded by the establishment of a Biophysics Department under his leadership. In 1952 he became head of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and Secretary General of the International Union of Scientific Organizations. He was President of the Marine Biological Association from 1955 to 1960. In 1967 he retired to Cambridge where he gradually lost the use of his legs. He died "held in the greatest affection by more than a hundred scientific descendants all over the world".[16]

Personal life

In 1913 he married Margaret Keynes (1885-1974), daughter of the economist John Neville Keynes, and sister of the economist John Maynard Keynes and the surgeon Geoffrey Keynes. They had two sons and two daughters:

  • Polly Hill (1914–2005), economist, married K.A.C. Humphreys, registrar of the West African Examinations Council.
  • David Keynes Hill (1915–2002), physiologist, married Stella Mary Humphrey
  • Maurice Hill (1919–1966), oceanographer, married Philippa Pass
  • Janet Hill (1918–2000) child psychiatrist, married the immunologist John Herbert Humphrey.

Honours and awards

Blue plaque

On 9 September 2015 an English Heritage Blue plaque was erected at Hill's former home, 16 Bishopswood Road, Highgate, where he had lived from 1923-1967. Since then the house had been divided into flats and owned by Highgate School, where Hill was a Governor from 1929-1960. It has now been sold, redeveloped and renamed as Hurstbourne. In Hill's time, according to his grandson Nicholas Humphrey, regular guests at the house included 18 exiled Nobel laureates, his brother-in-law, the economist John Maynard Keynes, and friends Stephen Hawking and Sigmund Freud. After-dinner conversations in the drawing room would inevitably involve passionate debates about science or politics. “Every Sunday we would have to attend a tea party at grandpa’s house and apart from entertaining some extraordinary guests, he would devise some great games for us, such as frog racing in the garden or looking through the lens of a (dissected) sheep’s eye.” Sir Ralph Kohn FRS who proposed the Blue plaque, said: “The Nobel Prize winner A. V. Hill contributed vastly to our understanding of muscle physiology. His work has resulted in wide-ranging application in sports medicine. As an outstanding Humanitarian and Parliamentarian, he was uncompromising in his condemnation of the Nazi regime for its persecution of scientists and others. A. V. Hill played a crucial role in assisting and rescuing many refugees to continue their work in this country.”[18][19][20]


By Hill:

  • Gray, C. H. (1947). "The significance of the van den Bergh reaction". The Quarterly Journal of Medicine. 16 (63): 135–142. PMID 20263725.
  • Hill, A. V.; Long, C. N. H.; Lupton, H. (1924). "Muscular Exercise, Lactic Acid, and the Supply and Utilisation of Oxygen". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 96 (679): 438–475. doi:10.1098/rspb.1924.0037.
  • Hill, A.V. (1924–25). Textbook of Anti-Aircraft Gunnery, 2 vols
  • - (1926). "The scientific study of athletics". Scientific American. 224 (April) (4): 224–225. Bibcode:1926SciAm.134..224H. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0426-224.
  • - (1926a). Muscular Activity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0-8493-5494-6.
  • - (1926b). Muscular Activity: Herter Lectures – Sixteenth Course. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins Company.
  • - (1927a). Muscular Movement in Man
  • - (1927b). Living Machinery
  • Hill, A. V. (1928). "Myothermic apparatus". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 103 (723): 117–137. Bibcode:1928RSPSB.103..117H. doi:10.1098/rspb.1928.0029.
  • - (1931). Adventures in Biophysics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • - (1932) Chemical Wave Transmission in Nerve
  • - (1960). The Ethical Dilemma of Science, and Other Writings. New York: Rockefeller Institute Press.
  • - (1965). Trails and Trials in Physiology: A Bibliography, 1909–1964; with reviews of certain topics and methods and a reconnaissance for further research. London: Arnold.


  1. Katz, B. (1978). "Archibald Vivian Hill. 26 September 1886-3 June 1977". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 24: 71–149. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1978.0005. JSTOR 769758. PMID 11615743.
  2. Bassett, DR Jr (2002). "Scientific contributions of A. V. Hill: exercise physiology pioneer". Journal of Applied Physiology. 93 (5): 1567–1582. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.01246.2001. PMID 12381740.
  3. "The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/31230.
  4. Hill, A. V. (1909). "The mode of action of nicotine and curari, determined by the form of the contraction curve and the method of temperature coefficients". The Journal of Physiology. 39 (5): 361–373. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.1909.sp001344. PMC 1533665. PMID 16992989.
  5. Langmuir, Irving (June 1918). "The Adsorption of Gases on Plane Surface of Glass, Mica and Platinum". The Research Laboratory of the General Electric Company. 40 (9): 1361–1402. doi:10.1021/ja02242a004.
  6. Katz, Bernard (1978). "Archibald Vivian Hill". Bio. Mem. Fel. Roy. Soc. 24: 71–149.
  7. Van der Kloot, William (2011). "Mirrors and Smoke: A. V. HILL, His Brigands, and the Science of Anti-Aircraft Gunnery in World War I". Notes Rec. R. Soc. Lond. 25: 393–410.
  8. Van der Kloot, William (2014). Great Scientists wage the Great War. Stroud: Fonthill. pp. 191–214.
  9. "The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1922".
  10. Hale, Tudor (15 February 2008). "History of developments in sport and exercise physiology: A. V. Hill, maximal oxygen uptake, and oxygen debt". Journal of Sports Sciences. 26 (4): 365–400. doi:10.1080/02640410701701016. ISSN 0264-0414. PMID 18228167.
  11. Bassett, D. R.; Howley, E. T. (1997). "Maximal oxygen uptake: "classical" versus "contemporary" viewpoints". Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 29 (5): 591–603. doi:10.1097/00005768-199705000-00002. ISSN 0195-9131. PMID 9140894.
  12. Jean Medawar; David Pyke (2001). Hitler's gift: scientists who fled Nazi Germany. London: Piatkus. p. 122.
  13. Van der Kloot 2014, p. 202.
  14. Hastings, Max (2011). All Hell let loose: the World at War 1939-45. London: Harper. p. 81.
  15. Hill, A. V. (1965). Trails and Trials in Physiology. London: Edward Arnold.
  16. Katz 1978. p. 133.
  17. Presidential Address to the British Association Meeting, held at Belfast in 1952
  18. "A.V.Hill, Nobel Prize Winner and Sports Medicine Pioneer, receives English Heritage Blue Plaque". Retrieved 8 October 2015.
  19. Rowlinson, Liz (18 September 2015). "Houses stamped with a mark of prestige". Times online. Retrieved 8 October 2015.
  20. "Hurstbourne, Highgate" (PDF). Retrieved 8 October 2015.


  • Lusk, G. (1925). Lectures on nutrition: 1924–1925. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company.
  • Medawar, Jean: Pyke, David (2012). Hitler's Gift: The True Story of the Scientists Expelled by the Nazi Regime (Paperback). New York: Arcade Publishing. ISBN 978-1-61145-709-4.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  • Stevenson, L.G. (1953). Nobel Prize Winners in Medicine and Physiology: 1901–1950. New York: Henry Schuman.
  • Nobel biography
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Sir Kenneth Pickthorn, Bt.
Sir John James Withers
Member of Parliament for Cambridge University
1940 – 1945
With: Sir Kenneth Pickthorn, Bt.
Succeeded by
Sir Kenneth Pickthorn, Bt.
Wilson Harris
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