John Newport Langley, FRS


1852-1925. Langley Physiologist. Researcher on the sympathetic nervous system.

Langley was educated first at home in Newbury, and later at Exeter grammar school. He proceeded with a sizarship to St John's College, where he was subsequently awarded a scholarship. He was reading mathematics and history with a view to entering the Indian Civil Service, but he changed course and began to read for the natural sciences tripos, in which he gained a first-class degree in 1874. In the following year he was appointed a demonstrator. In 1877 he was elected to an open fellowship at Trinity, and in the same year spent several months in Heidelberg, studying the salivary secretion of the cat. In 1878 he received his MA from Cambridge and a ScD in 1896.

At Michael Foster's suggestion, Langley began experimental research even before taking his degree. The action of the new drug pilocarpine as tested on the frog's heart formed Langley's earliest subject of research; the work was published in the newly started Papers from the Cambridge Physiological Laboratory. The course of this work led Langley to the study of secretion, and he found that the new drug exerted a specific influence on the secretory process in mammalian salivary glands. This led to his study of secretion in general, which he followed with an unparalleled precision. He soon showed that, contrary to the accepted view, based on statements made by Rudolf Heidenhain of Breslau, the secretory granules accumulate when the gland is not secreting, and when secretion ensues the granules are discharged from the cell. He also conducted microscopical examination of the gland cells which were under experiment, checking his microscopical observations of the ‘fixed’ and ‘stained’ gland cells by observations on the living cells, sampled from the glands at various stages of experiment.

Langley also investigated the nervous influence exerted on the gland cells; he distinguished between the ‘loaded’ and the ‘exhausted’ states of the gland. He showed that the belief in the existence of specific ‘trophic’ nerve fibres for the salivary glands rested on evidence which could be explained by vascular effects concurrently produced in the local blood circulation. Besides the fundamental information contained in his papers, the form and style of these papers were generally recognized as setting an exceptionally high standard of effectiveness, clearness, and accuracy, free from speculative argument.

Langley's systematic exploration of the secretory process occupied the first fifteen years of his career in research. In 1883 he was appointed a Lecturer in Natural Science at Trinity, and University Lecturer in Physiology, confirming, both in College and University, his position as assistant to Foster, who in 1883 had been appointed Professor of Pphysiology. In 1900 Langley became deputy to Foster, and in 1903 succeeded him in the professorship.

The climax of Langley's achievement as an investigator was perhaps his research (1890-1906) into the sympathetic nervous system. Proceeding from the discovery, made by himself and his pupil, W. Lee Dickinson, in 1889, that nicotine paralyses the nerve cells in sympathetic ganglia, Langley used that procedure as a method, and subjected the whole of the sympathetic ganglionic system to exhaustive analysis, determining for each ganglion from where its paths come and to where they lead. The belief had been that sympathetic nerve paths vary greatly, and differ greatly from each other, some having one and some having many nerve cells intercalated along their course. Langley made it clear that in the sympathetic system, from its spinal to its distal goal, whether in muscle, gland, or other peripheral tissue, only one nerve cell is interposed in each and every path. Each ganglion forms the one and only relay station for the fibres interrupted there. Langley showed further that the sympathetic ganglia belong entirely to efferent paths. It became clear, therefore, that the pain accompanying visceral disease is not due to the ganglia, though they are predominantly visceral. It had been thought that the true reflex actions could be obtained from sympathetic ganglia, but Langley showed that spread of conduction along merely branched nerve fibres (axon reflexes) would explain the seemingly reflex phenomena. He furnished an excellent summary of this work in 1901 for the second volume of E.A. Sharpey-Schafer's Advanced Text-Book of Physiology.

In 1907 Langley, having noticed that adrenaline stimulates the cells of the sympathetic system after degeneration of the spinal fibre which conveys to them their normal stimulation, found that nicotine produces the same effect. Nicotine causes also a local contraction of muscle, which has its seat at the point of nerve entry into the muscle fibre; this local contraction is prevented by curare. Langley inferred from observations of this kind that the mechanism of excitation of one cell by another consists in a locally developed receptive substance, which sensitizes the cell for the stimulus which it receives from the cell to which it reacts. The cells of different tissues he supposed to have different and specific receptive substances.

This work was interrupted in 1914 by the outbreak of the First World War, which depleted the new physiological laboratory, completed earlier that year, of staff and students. Langley therefore directed the energies of its remaining workers into channels of direct value for wartime medicine. He collaborated with foreign visitors, mainly Japanese, to his laboratory, in investigations especially connected with the trophic changes in muscle and nerve following traumatic injury and during recovery.

When the war was over, Langley quickly returned to his former routine of research and teaching, working chiefly on various aspects of vasomotor action. The results of his later research were collected in his Autonomic Nervous System (1921).

From 1894 until his death, Langley both owned and edited the Journal of Physiology. Founded in 1876 by Foster, who retained the official title of editor until his death in 1907, the journal had an established reputation but had also incurred a sizable debt. Langley, having paid the debt and bought the unsold stock, ensured that every paper issued in the journal not only made a solid contribution to knowledge, but maintained the desired standard of form and style with succinctness, lucidity, and a minimum of speculative discussion. He would, where he judged fit, almost entirely recast a paper, his strictness often annoying, sometimes alienating, his collaborators. Many, however, came ultimately to recognize his assistance with gratitude. He declined any published acknowledgement of this labour. In the course of time the international scientific world came to recognize that by his actions he was setting a pattern in the presentation of scientific work.

Langley was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1883, was vice-president in 1904–5, delivered the Croonian lecture in 1906, and received the Royal Medal of the Society in 1892. He was president of the Neurological Society of Great Britain in 1893, and of the physiological section of the British Association in 1899. He was awarded the Baly medal of the Royal College of Physicians in 1903, and the Andreas Retzius medal of the Swedish Society of Physicians in 1912. Among the other honours which he received were honorary degrees from several British and foreign universities.

All his life Langley had a keen interest in sport, especially rowing and lawn tennis, and in later life he was a keen gardener. He had also been a first-rate skater. He showed considerable power as a hypnotist, when, for a time, the subject of mesmerism had engaged his attention.  © DNB

Memorial inscription Translation



Sacred to the memory of John Newport Langley, Sc.D., F.R.S., a scholar of St John’s College and a Fellow of this College and Professor of Physiology in the University.  He won worldwide fame for his research into the nervous system.  The truth, which he loved more than himself, was his only goal.  A keen but benign critic of the work of others, he disappointed no one who asked his advice.  His quick eyes bore witness to his healthy mind and body.  He was born on 10th November 1852 and died on 5th November 1925.

John Newport Langley

Brass located on the south wall of the Ante-Chapel. 
Memorial text by James Duff Duff.



Langley brass




Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.


Arthur Harold John Knight


Full index of



Gaillard Thomas Lapsley
Brasses A-B Brasses C-G Brasses H-K Brasses L-P Brasses R-S Brasses T-W