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Ragnar Granit

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by Yrsa Neuman

Ragnar Granit graduated from the Helsinki Swedish Normal Lyceum high school in 1918. He studied psychology at the University of Helsinki mentored by professor Eino Kaila, well-known psychologist and philosopher. In his book How It All Came About: Memoirs and Motivations Granit says, “physiology is the best entryway to an understanding of the human senses”. He received his Masters Degree in 1924 and his doctoral dissertation, in medicine, took place three years later. In 1928 he went to Oxford to work at the lab of Sir Charles Scott Sherrington, famous neural physiologist. Sherrington was Granit’s mentor and close personal friend throughout his professional career. I the fall of 1929 Granit married Marguerite Emma Bruun (Daisy) and received a job offer from the University of Philadelphia.

At the University of Philadelphia Ragnar Granit had large research facilities at his disposal and received generous grants for acquisition of research equipment. At the same time British physiologist Haldan Keffer Hartline conducted research at the University of Philadelphia. In Pennsylvania Granit had the opportunity to experimantally test his theory on the nervous layer of the retina and its importance for seeing.

After two years in Pennsylvania the Granit family returned to Helsinki and shortly thereafter moved to Sherrington’s laboratory at Oxford. Here he reached a more fundamental understanding of the electrical reactions of the retina when illuminated . Granit was offered a professorship at the University of Dorpat, but declined. “Don’t accept it, sooner or later you will go to Stockholm anyway”, said Sherrington. In the fall of 1932 Sherrington and Edgar Douglas Adrian shared the Nobel Price in physiology for their discovery of the functions of the nervcells.

Ragnar Granit returned to Helsinki in 1934, and was shocked and saddened by the persecution of the Swedish language by the fennomans at the University of Helsinki. In his book he describes the hooligans hollering in the University aula and tarring Swedish language wall signs.

Granit had received a generous grant from the Rockefeller foundation and continued his experiments in Helsinki. He managed to show that illuminating the eye of a frog not only generates nervous impulses but can also disable these. The next year Hartline verified Granit’s findings. The discovery provided a new understanding of how the eye perceives shape: “the eye performes a constant series of movements, called sackades, and as a result the contours of an object triggers and disables impulses providing information about the contrast between lighter and darker sections”. Hartline succeeded separating individual nerve capillaries in an optic nerve and showed that the discharge of a nerve capillary originated from a cell that belonged to a cluster of cells occupying an area of less than 1 millimeter diameter on the retina.

Granit wished to research whether the retina had separate receptors for the different components of solar light, in other words about the way the eye sees color. Granit reached conclusions similar to those of the classics of color vision theory the early English physicist Thomas Young and the German physicist and physiologist Hermann von Helmholz : that the retina has three color sensitive layers. It turned out that the eye entails a kind of nerve center that prepares the information for the brain and for the actual way there.

November 30, 1939 came the Soviet attack on Finland and Granit was appointed district and fortress physician at the islands of Korpo (Korppoo), Houtskär (Houtskari) and Iniö in the Turku archipelago. In the spring of 1940, the time of the peace agreement with Moscow, he received a magnificent offer of a chair for life at Harward University and accepted. Shortly thereafter he received an offer from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm (The Carolinian Institute) to head up a new neuropsychological research facility. The tickets to Boston were cancelled.

In 1940 Ragnar Granit applied for and received Swedish citizenship. He said his motivation was purely practical. An avid yachtsman he was severely restricted navigating in the inner Swedish archipelago of the Baltic Sea as a foreigner. In his book he notes cultural peculiarities of his new homeland: ”The Finns are used to suffering without complaining; the Swedes are used to complain without suffering”.

At the Carolinian Institute Granit focused his research on how the spinal marrow and the brain exert muscular control. He retired in 1967, the same year he shared the Nobel Price with Hartline and George Wald for his discoveries concerning the physiological and chemical foundations of vision. He passed away in 1991.

In those days medical research often involved inventing and constructing new instruments and apparata for conducting experiments. Granit and Alvar Wilska developed a new electrode type: the electroretinogram. He also lived to see his science transform and the new electrical physiology enter the stage through the more traditional neural physiology.

Lots of honors were bestowed on Granit. He was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science and the Nobel Committee. He was appointed Fellow of the Finnish Academy in 1985. In Finland his life work lives on and is continued through the Ragnar Granit Foundation and the Ragnar Granit Institute at the Tampere University of Technology.

Throughout his life Ragnar Granit remained a World Citizen. He had strong ties to the Granit family mansion Vikminne in Korpoström in the Turku archipelago where his relatives still spend their summers. Ragnar Granit provides inspiration to ever-new generations of medical researchers and students of optical physiology throughout the academic world. There are many good reasons why he should be kept in mind. He is the only Swedish Finn Nobel Laureate so far. Throughout his life he also made great efforts to provide a better understanding and better conditions for the culture of the Swedish Finns.

The original article was written by Yrsa Neuman yneuman@abo.fi . English version by Gunnar Damström


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