The technical and methodological hurdles to getting good bioelectrical readings from these nerve fibers were considerable. Cole’s contributions to the methods and technologies used for cellular biophysics at the time should therefore not be underestimated. In some ways this story is less a story of two scientists, one who discovered an interesting neuron, the other who developed and refined ways of investigating its biophysical properties, and more a story about the laboratory that in the 1930s brought together brilliant biologists. The MBL wasn’t the home institution of any of these scientists. Cole at the time was working at Columbia University, Young and Hodgkin were at University of Cambridge, and Williams was at Harvard University. Yet it was the MBL, and a related network of marine biological laboratories in the US, UK, and Europe, that provided the crucial context for incredible discoveries.
Our final story is about Hodgkin and Huxley, and the Nobel prize they won for their elegant conductance-based model of action potentials. Our story so far complicates the idea that individual prizes in science make much sense. Kenneth Cole was not the recipient of the 1963 Nobel prize along with Hodgkin, Huxley, and John Eccles, yet his name is mentioned by both Hodgkin and Huxley in their Nobel Lectures, and it is clear that his work was a necessary contribution to the discovery of “the ionic mechanism involved in excitation and inhibition […] of the nerve cell membrane”.
Of course we see farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, but we also see father by being situated in a community of scientists with access to fresh experimental animals, modern laboratory equipment, and congenial intellectual environments. The beautiful beaches and sailing opportunities at the MBL probably should also not be underestimated in terms of their direct contributions to scientific progress. Labs like the MBL, Cold Spring Harbor, Plymouth Lab, and the Stazione Zoologica, shaped and sustained the experimental foundations of modern biology, biophysics, and neurophysiology, and provide a model for exemplary research to this day. And the stories of discovery they often shaped were less about signal individuals and eureka moments, and more about networks of researchers slowly accreting data which allowed them to collectively solve deep and important biological problems.