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Born in Vienna, Barany became a medical doctor in 1900. In 1903, he joined the Viennese Politzer's ear clinic and began his research on the vestibular organ. Barany published his first report in 1906, and in 1909 he was appointed docent at the University of Vienna. In 1915 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for his work on the physiology and pathology of the vestibular apparatus. The announcement that he was Nobel Laureate came while he was still a Russian prisoner of war in Merv (Turkestan). Through the intercession of Gunnar Holmgren of Uppsala, the Swedish Red Cross Society, and the King of Sweden, he was released, and the prize was presented to him through diplomatic channels. Barany described for the first time the caloric reaction proceeding from the semicircular canals, in which the endolymph increases in specific gravity with cooling, showing a tendency to seak, whereas with warming the specific gravity decreases and the fluid shows a tendency to rise. This very simply obtained reaction has become the basis for the understanding of some labyrinth diseases. Barany's research provided the neurologist with important clues in the diagnosis of diseases of the central vestibular apparatus, and in its connection with the nucleus of the ocular muscles, the cerebellum, and the spinal cord. After being awarded the Nobel Prize, Barany faced accusations from colleagues of not acknowledging his collaborators' contributions, and he never returned to Vienna. Most of these charges were proved false, but he felt dejected, and spent the rest of his life working in Uppsala, Sweden, where he became Professor of Otorhinolaryngology in 1926. Barany is well known by all ear, nose, and throat specialists because he gave his name to a noise box used in audiological testing. In 1960, his name was adopted by the Barany Society, inaugurated in Padua, Italy, which conducted a vestibular symposium in Uppsala every 5 years.
Barany's involvement with science was best summed up by himself: “The work of a researcher can be divided into three categories: firstly, he needs a sharp and clear perception, must be able to separate the important facts from the less important ones, and must also be able to think independently. Secondly, the researcher must defend his results with all his energy; he must even fight for them. I very often find that important facts are being neglected and even forgotten only because their discoverer did not stand up for them sufficiently. Lastly, the researcher must invest the maximum of his energies into founding his own school of followers, for a single person can only—in his short life span—deal with and solve a fraction of the questions that need to be solved.”
In 1976, Austria issued a postage stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Robert Barany. He was also honoured by a Swedish stamp on the 60th anniversary of his Nobel Prize award and by a Hungarian stamp issued in 1988.
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