Georg von Békésy (June 3, 1899 - June 13, 1972) was a biophysicist. In 1961, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for elucidating the cochlea of the ear.
Békésy developed a method for dissecting the inner ear of human cadavers while leaving the cochlea intact. By using strobe photography and silver flakes as a marker, he was able to observe that the basilar membrane moves in waves when stimulated by sound. Because of the structure of the cochlea and basilar membrane, different frequencies of sound would cause the maximum amplitude of the waves to occur at different places along the basilar membrane. Thus, his observations showed how sound wave frequencies are transduced into electrical signals (or action potentials) produced by hair cells along the basilar membrane. He theorized that the placement of each hair cell along the basilar membrane corresponds to a different frequency of sound, and therefore stimulation of that hair cell by the movement of the basilar membrane produces an action potential that causes the perception of the corresponding sound. Békésy later developed a mechanical model of the cochlea to test these theories and found them to be correct.
Békésy was born in Budapest, Hungary, the son of diplomat Alexander von Békésy and his wife Paula. He went to school in Budapest, Constantinople, Munich, and Zürich. He studied chemistry in Berne and received his PhD from the University of Budapest in 1926.
During World War II, Békésy worked for the Hungarian Post Office, where he did research on telecommunications. This research led him to become interested in the workings of the ear. In 1946, he left Hungary to follow this line of research at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.
In 1947, he moved to the United States, working at Harvard until 1966. He became a professor at the University of Hawaii in 1966 and died in Honolulu.
Goldstein, B. 2001. Sensation and Perception, 6th ed. London: Wadsworth.
Nobel Prize Biography