Joseph Erlanger

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San Francisco,
Birth Sign
San Francisco,

Joseph Erlanger was an eminent American physiologist who made significant contributions to the field of neuroscience. Among his most significant contributions are the discovery of new types of nerve fibers, the establishment of a relationship between the diameter of a nerve fiber and its action potential velocity, and the development of a modified Western Electric Oscilloscope and an adapted version of the sphygmomanometer. After earning his bachelor’s degree in chemistry, he pursued studies in medicine and earned his M.D. from John Hopkins University in 1899. Though he initially concentrated on cardiology, he later shifted his focus to neuroscience, where he conducted several notable studies. He began his academic career at John Hopkins University before transferring to the University of Wisconsin in 1906. Here he began his association with Herbert Spencer Gasser, which lasted until 1931 and resulted in several critical inventions and discoveries in the field of neuroscience as a result of their collaboration. They shared the 1944 Nobel Prize in Medicine for ‘discoveries concerning the highly differentiated functions of single nerve fibers’.

Childhood & Adolescence

Joseph Erlanger was born in San Francisco, California on 5 January 1874. He was the sixth child of Jewish immigrants from Germany’s Kingdom of Württemberg, Herman and Sarah Erlanger.

In 1892, he graduated from San Francisco’s Lowell High School. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from the University of California, Berkley, in 1895.

He then enrolled at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to study medicine, earning his M. D. degree in 1899.

Career of Joseph

After graduating, Joseph Erlanger continued his internship at John Hopkins Hospital for a year before being appointed to the medical school there.

He began his career as an assistant at the Department of Physiology. He later became an Instructor and was responsible for delivering lectures on metabolic and digestive topics as part of his work.

In 1901, he published an article on the canine digestive system. This work attracted the attention of William H Howells, a physiology professor, who recruited Joseph Erlanger as an Assistant Professor. Later in his career, he was promoted to Associate Professor.

In 1906, he became the first Professor of Physiology at the Medical School associated with the University of Wisconsin. Among his students was Herbert Spencer Gasser, who went on to become a renowned physiologist and collaborated on numerous research and study projects with Joseph Erlanger.

He joined the Medical School of Washington University in St. Louis as a Professor of Physiology a few years later, in 1910. He received additional support and funding for his research projects during his tenure here.

In 1922, Joseph Erlanger and Herbert Spencer Gasser developed a low-voltage version of Western Electric’s cathode ray oscilloscope. This aided in their two-phase study of nerve action potentials. Prior to this invention, only an electroencephalograph could be used to measure neural activity, and only in cases of excessive electrical activity.

They identified various types of neurons and their forms, as well as their individual excitability, using a cathode ray oscilloscope. Their research established that the action potential velocity is directly proportional to the diameter of a nerve fiber.

Their long-term collaboration came to an end in 1931, when Herbert Spencer Gasser joined Cornell University. His other research interests include the metabolism of dogs with shortened intestines, shock, and the function of the arteries during sound production.

He published a book titled ‘Electrical Signs of Nervous Activity’ in 1937. He conducted research on a variety of subjects throughout his career. However, he concentrated on the circulatory system’s physiology and electrophysiology. Initially, he was interested in cardiology, specifically the atrium and ventricle’s function. Additionally, he invented and patented a sphygmomanometer model that allowed for the measurement of blood pressure via the brachial artery.

Additionally, as a result of his research, he developed a clamp capable of reversibly blocking the auriculo-ventricular bundle of the heart in mammals. The device aided his research in identifying issues with the bundle’s function.
He retired in 1946 while serving as Chairman of Washington University’s Medical School. He was appointed Professor emeritus at the school following his retirement.

Significant Works of Joseph

Joseph Erlanger was a renowned physiologist whose research was primarily focused on neuroscience. His inventions, such as the adapted cathode ray oscilloscope and the modified sphygmomanometer, were hailed as ground-breaking. He collaborated with counterpart physiologist H.S.Gasser on studies that resulted in the discovery of the various types and forms of neurons, as well as the quantification of their action potentials at various stages.

Awards and Accomplishments

He and physiologist Herbert Spencer Gasser shared the 1944 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Several prestigious universities have bestowed honorary degrees on him, including the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California, the University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin.

Personal History and Legacies

In 1906, he married Aimée Hirstel, with whom he had three children: Margaret (born in 1908), Ruth Josephine (born in 1910), and Herman (born in 1911). (born in 1912). His wife Aimée Hirstel and son Herman both died in 1959.

Joseph Erlanger died of heart disease on 5 December 1965 in St. Louis, Missouri, at the age of 91. The Joseph Erlanger House in St. Louis was designated a National Historic Landmark on 8 December 1976 in recognition of his efforts and accomplishments.

Estimated Net Worth

The estimated net worth of Joseph is about $4million.


The International Astronomical Union named a crater on the moon after him in 2009.