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Georg von Békésy (1899-1972)
Born in 1899 in Budapest of a distinguished family, Georg von Békésy studied at the University of Berne; at the University of Budapest, where he obtained his PhD; and at the University of Münster, where he received an MD with honours. In 1928, Békésy published his first and probably most significant paper on the pattern of vibration in the membranes of the cochlea of the ear. This one paper provided the foundations for his whole career: “I found the inner ear so beautiful under a stereoscopic microscope that I decided I would just stay with that problem. It was the beauty and the pleasure of beauty that made me stick to the ear.”
Since that date, he regularily published papers about the theory of hearing, notably how the cochlea functions mechanically. In 1947 he went to the USA and from 1949 was a senior research fellow in psychophysics at Harvard University. In 1961 Georg von Békésy was awarded the Noble Prize in Physiology of Medicine for his discoveries on the physical mechanism of stimulation within the cochlea. Békésy's writings on the main results of his many studies on hearing over the 30 year period 1928-58 were published in 1960 in a single volume Experiments in Hearing. Békésy died in 1972 in Honolulu. He will be best remembered for inventing the patient controlled recording audiometer, known to all of us as the Békésy audiometer.
Békésy was primarily a physicist. As an investigator he was imaginative, precise, immensely patient, and single minded. He set a new standard for bioacoustical investigation. He became a legend in his own lifetime, and he will
always be remembered for his many contributions to otology, to auditory physiology, and to psychophysics. He was a solitary worker. One of his rare collaborations was with Julius Lempert, one of the most prominent ear surgeons in the middle of the 20th century. His life was devoted almost as much to art as it was to science; and although his love of art was carefully cultivated, the course of his scientific career was determined almost as much by chance as it was by design.
Békésy was honored philatelically by a stamp issued in Sweden in 1984, to remember his Nobel Prize Award and by a stamp issued in Hungary, his country of origin, in 1988.
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