Image of a cell

Kenneth S. Cole

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For highly original experimental and theoretical investigations of the electrical properties of biological membranes that have led to a deep understanding of the functioning of nerves.

In the early 1900s, a young boy passed time by igniting sparks with discarded parts from the telephone company. That boy – Kenneth S. Cole – would later turn his attention to another form of electricity, the kind that controls our thoughts, feelings and bodily functions.

Experimenting with tissue from a giant squid, Cole and his colleague demonstrated how ionic charges move through cell membranes.

His advances led to the “sodium theory” of nerve transmission, an explanation for the role sodium ions play in the transmission of electrical signals through nerves.

Cole is also credited with the development of the voltage clamp, a technique used by scientists to measure currents moving through tissue while maintaining a constant level of electricity.

The invention rapidly advanced the blossoming field of neurophysiology.

“As a result, we know far more about how the nervous system functions,” President Lyndon Baines Johnson said, awarding Cole the National Medal of Science in 1967.