The Relation Between Neuroscience and War
A complex mutual interaction spawned some of humanity's greatest breakthroughs.
Posted December 9, 2022 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- Alfred Loomis, a self-taught physicist who discovered the EEG sleep stages, went on to develop radar during wartime.
- Just as American neurology was born in the Civil War, the roots of neuroscience are embedded in World War II.
- The relation of war and neuroscience is complex: a source of alarm to some, and a sign of hope for others.
In earlier blogs I presented the stories of some of the seminal figures in neuroscience, who escaped (or were unable to escape) from Hitler’s Europe. Otto Loewi was imprisoned for the crime of accepting the Nobel Prize for his insights into neurotransmission, and used his prize money to emigrate to America. Hans Berger discovered the human EEG, and hung himself in his own ward after the Nazis had commandeered his psychiatry program and his own services. Others, like neurosurgeon Ludwig Guttmann, fled Germany, and in England made great strides in our understanding of nerve regeneration. Frank Berger, who escaped from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, ended up sleeping on a park bench in London, and later went on to discover meprobamate, the first modern tranquilizer.
Here, we’ll look at another aspect of the relationship between neuroscience and war—the story of Alfred Loomis, who contributed to the understanding of the sleep EEG, but when war broke out, applied his skill to military ends.
The Life of an American Gentleman-Scientist
Alfred Loomis (1887-1975), born in Manhattan to a socially prominent family, many of whom were physicians, studied mathematics at Yale University before going to Harvard Law School. After graduating in 1912, he practiced corporate law until joining the Army when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, and was assigned to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. During his time there, he invented a device that became known as the Aberdeen Chronograph, which measured the velocity of shells by firing them through revolving discs of aluminum covered with paper.
After the war, Loomis and his brother-in-law acquired an investment bank that was remarkably successful, at one point managing 15 percent of all securities in America. They sensed that the market crash of 1929 was coming, sold their holdings for gold shortly before it occurred, and then purchased the low-priced stocks afterwards.
In the years that followed, Loomis prospered financially, but he began to miss the excitement of invention he had felt at Aberdeen. His interests returned to science and his fascination with building new devices. He had little formal scientific education, but in the tradition of the English gentleman-scientist, he built a laboratory, equipped better than those at most universities, near his mansion high on a hill in the exclusive community of Tuxedo Park, New York.
Though he studied many things, including quartz-crystal chronometers, spectrometry of chemicals such as formaldehyde, and high-frequency sound waves, it was Loomis’ studies of the human electroencephalogram which earned him a place in the history of neuroscience. He improved on the equipment used by Hans Berger, so that voltage fluctuations on the scalp were recorded on a revolving 8-foot drum, making possible all-night studies. In 1937, he and colleagues published a description of the sleep stages, which they called stages A through E. Since REM sleep would not be discovered until the 1950s, they had, in effect, made the first description of the stages of non-REM sleep.
Loomis’ interests took him deeper and deeper into physics, and in 1939 he worked with Ernest Lawrence to finance his groundbreaking 184-inch cyclotron.
In the late 1930s, he was also in touch with European scientists, and the information he learned about the rise of Nazi power led him to believe that war was inevitable. He held the then-unpopular view that America would ultimately become involved. He became interested in learning how to use the reflection of focused microwaves off objects to measure their distance and position, and founded a laboratory for this purpose, in conjunction with MIT and Cambridge. Its crowning achievement was the development of a practical form of radar, which by the summer of 1942 had greatly decreased the threat of U-boats to Allied shipping, made it possible for pilots to make "blind landings" in bad weather, and was adapted for automatic control of aircraft machine guns. Interestingly, the latter project was also addressed in England by Alan Hodgkins, the neuroscientist who, along with Andrew Huxley, would go on to characterize neuronal action potentials. The result was a radar-guided machine gun placed in the tail of bombers, and known as the Village Inn FN121.
After the war, Loomis helped integrate a much smaller laboratory into a peacetime setting; then, this man who had never done things halfway turned his attention to his private life. Though always having been seen as outwardly emotionally distant, it turned out that since 1939 he had been having a secret affair with Manette Hobart, the two-decade younger wife of one of his collaborators. He divorced his first wife, remarried, and gave up his luxurious lifestyle and place in society for a quiet, modest life in East Hampton. He avoided publicity and gave no interviews for the next 28 years, until his death in 1975.
The Relation Between War and Neuroscience
How can we put together the stories of the future leaders of modern neuroscience, be they those who suffered in World War II or the Allied researchers who applied their skills to win the war?
One thing we can say is that, just as the discipline of American neurology arose from the Civil War and its aftermath (1), the roots of modern neuroscience are entwined with World War II. In the decades since the war, some have viewed this association with alarm, worrying about possible applications of neuroscience for aiding the military, while others have heralded the advances, such as the growing understanding of the pathophysiology of PTSD.
There is, indeed, room for optimism. One promising source is the rise of what has been called "dignity neuroscience", which suggests that people only prosper in the presence of basic human rights, and that the foundations of these rights can be found not only in moral codes, but in the brain sciences (2). As we struggle with these complex issues, it is valuable to remember the origins of the field, and the stories of the scientists who made it possible.
Portions of this article are adapted from Trial by Fire: World War II and the Founders of Modern Neuroscience and Psychopharmacology.
1. Casper, S.T.: A revisionist history of American neurology. Brain 133: 638-642, 2010.
2. White, T.L. and Gonsalves, M.A.: Dignity neuroscience: universal rights are rooted in human brain science. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1505: 40-54, 2021.