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His research did suggest how nerve cells lose their electrically insulating layers of myelin

Posted Jan 14 2009 8:24pm
Contributed by Matilde in Miami:


August 4, 2008

Professor J. Murdoch Ritchie: biophysicist and pharmacologist

The biophysicist and pharmacologist Murdoch Ritchie was a key figure in the development of neuropharmacology, the branch of medical science dealing with the action of drugs on and in the nervous system. He was best known for his substantial contributions to our understanding of the conduction of electrical impulses in peripheral nerves — particularly nerves in the face, arms, legs and torso.

In his studies of electrical conduction within nerve cells in the early 1970s, Ritchie used saxitoxin, a powerful poison derived from shellfish that kills by causing respiratory failure. It had been developed by the CIA for possible covert uses and stocks, in violation of a 1969 order by President Nixon, had not been destroyed. According to Ritchie, the CIA had kept enough saxitoxin to kill 5,000 people, and he obtained a quantity for his research.

Extremely small concentrations of the toxin block the conduction of electrical signals in nerves and can, therefore, be used to study the function of the nervous system.

Ritchie failed to discover a way of counteracting the effects of saxitoxin, his original goal, but his research did suggest how nerve cells lose their electrically insulating layers of myelin. This ultimately rendered the nervous system unable to conduct nerve impulses, leading to multiple sclerosis.

He also studied both the desirable and the hazardous effects of caffeine, publishing his conclusions in chapters in each of five editions of The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics, by Goodman & Gilman (1965-1985).

Joseph Murdoch Ritchie was born in Aberdeen in 1925. He studied mathematics and physics at Aberdeen University, graduating in 1944. He then took a post as a research physicist at the Telecommunications Research Establishment at Malvern, where he worked on the development of radar.

In 1946 he became a research student at University College London, in the world’s first department of biophysics, working on the dynamics of skeletal muscle contraction. He was awarded a BSc degree in physiology from UCL in 1949 and was appointed a junior lecturer. In 1951 he moved to the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill, North London. He was awarded a PhD in biophysics in 1952 and a DSc in biophysics in 1960, both by UCL.

In 1956 he emigrated to the US and a post in the Department of Pharmacology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University, New York. In 1963 he was appointed Professor of Pharmacology there.

In 1968 he moved to Yale as Professor of Pharmacology. He was director of Medical Studies at Yale for 30 years and served on many university committees. An energetic and meticulous experimentalist, he continued to conduct experiments until he retired in 2000. A prolific writer, he wrote and edited more than 70 reviews, chapters, books and monographs.

Ritchie was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1976. He received many other honours and awards; he was a founding member of the Society for Neuroscience.

A charismatic person with a lively personality, Ritchie had a great zest for life. An enthusiastic skier, he regularly holidayed with his family in his beloved Zermatt, Switzerland.

His wife, a son and a daughter survive him.

Professor J. Murdoch Ritchie, biophysicist and pharmacologist, was born on June 10, 1925. He died on July 9, 2008, aged 83

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