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Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience


John Newport Langley succeeded Michael Foster as Professor of Physiology in 1903 and in this role he oversaw the move of the Physiological Laboratory to the present building in 1914, which was provided by the generosity of the Drapers Company. Langley had first come up to St John’s College Cambridge in 1871 and, on changing his subject to Natural Sciences in his second year, was taught by Foster. Langley became a Fellow of Trinity College in 1877, became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1883 and held a lectureship in Cambridge from 1884.

Langley championed two major areas of research; following on from Gaskell’s work, he near-single-handedly established the physiology of the autonomic nervous system, the branch of the peripheral nervous system that controls internal organs and glands, including the well know sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ response. He was also the first person (in 1905) to use the term ‘receptive substances’ to describe receptor proteins in the cell membrane that respond to external chemical signals such as hormones and neurotransmitters; from this he developed a theory of drug action. It is on this basis that much of modern pharmacology and pharmaceutical drug development depends. It would be another 70 years before such proteins were isolated from cell membranes. During the first world war, he studied nerve regeneration. In addition, Langley took over from Foster the editorship of the Journal of Physiology and steered it into financial stability.

At the Langley display, you can see an example of the ‘pharmacological approach’ that Langley took to identify ‘receptive substances’. We will also think about the effects of the autonomic nervous system on human physiology.