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Dr. John Smythies


Brief Biography:

I was educated at Rugby School and Christ’s College, Cambridge and University College Hospital Medical School, London, graduating M.B. B.Chir. (Cantab) in 1945. After two years as a Surgeon-Lieutenant in the R.N.V.R. I completed my basic medical postgraduate training at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge before selecting neuropsychiatry for a speciality.

Two weeks into my first psychiatric residency at St. George’s Hospital, London noting the close chemical relation between the psychotomimetic drug mescaline and the neurotransmitter catecholamines, I suggested that schizophrenia might be caused by some abnormality in catecholamine metabolism that produced a mescaline-like substance in the brain. I developed this idea, in collaboration with the organic chemist John Harley-Mason and Humphrey Osmond, into the first specific biochemical theory of schizophrenia—the transmethylation hypothesis.

In the same year, inspired by the fact that mescaline produces such remarkable effects on all human mental faculties and by the interdisciplinary work of Albert Schweitzer, I decided to tackle the mind-brain problem in a systematic way i.e. by undertaking a rigorous training in neuroscience, experimental psychology and philosophy. So first I worked for one year as a resident in the EEG Department at the National Hospital, Queen Square, London. I then took an M.Sc. degree in neuroanatomy, philosophy and cultural anthropology with the neuroanatomist William C. Gibson at the University of British Columbia. The neuroanatomical research involved was as study of the synaptic structure in human cortex as revealed by silver staining, and I was awarded a post-graduate M.D degree by Cambridge for this work. My teacher in philosophy was the distinguished American philosopher Avrum Stroll, who became a life-long mentor and friend. This was followed, during the tenure of a Nuffield Fellowship in Medicine, by six months with the Nobel Laureate Sir John Eccles in neurophysiology and 18 months at the Psychological Laboratory in Cambridge with Oliver Zangwill studying the stroboscopic patterns (the complex geometrical hallucinations induced by looking at a flickering light). Then I worked a further two years in neuropharmacology with Harold E. Himwich in Galesburg, Illinois and with Hudson Hoagland at the Worcester Foundation, before returning to London where I completed my formal clinical psychiatric training with Sir Aubrey Lewis at the Maudsley Hospital. I then joined the Faculty of the University of Edinburgh for twelve years, first as Senior Lecturer then Reader, before being invited to a personal Chair at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, funded by the Ireland family, where I stayed for eighteen years. In 1992 I retired from this position and moved to UCSD where I was invited by the distinguished neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran to join his Center for Brain and Cognition.  Dr. Ramachandran was placed this year by Time magazine on their list of the one hundred most influential people in the world.

 I currently hold positions as the Charles Byron Ireland Professor Emeritus of Psychiatric Research at the University of Alabama Medical Center at Birmingham, Visiting Scholar at the Center for Brain and Cognition, University of California San Diego, and, until recently, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Neurology, University College, London.

I have served as President of the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology from 1970-1974, Consultant to the World Health Organization from 1963-1968, and Editor of the International Review of Neurobiology from 1958-1991. I have published over 220 scientific papers and sixteen books. I am a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians (London) and Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. I was elected a member of the Athenaeum in 1968.


Academic positions:

Visiting Scholar, UCSD

C.B. Ireland Professor Emeritus UAB.


Research interests:

I have covered the evolution of my research in the biography section

I have made made extensive contributions to knowledge in a number of fields including the neurochemistry of schizophrenia and the neuropharmacology of psychedelic drugs; the functional neuroanatomy of synapses with particular regard to the role of synaptic plasticity, endocytosis and redox factors; the role in the brain of orthoquinone metabolites of catecholamines; the role of virtual reality mechanisms in visual perception; the structure and function of the claustrum and the adrenergic nuclei in the medulla; and theories of brain-consciousness relations (see attached CV).

In 1956 I published my first book “Analysis of Perception” on the mind-brain problem. A second book “The Walls of Plato’s Cave” followed in 1994 on the same topic. This book was reviewed by Robert Almader (29) who said: “This is certainly one of the four or five most arresting and compelling books written on the nature of consciousness, the mind-brain problem, and human personality.” In 1998 I wrote "Every Person's Guide to Antioxidants".  An account of my work on synaptic plasticity in my book “The Dynamic Neuron” followed in 2002. In all, I have published over 210 medical and scientific papers, and 16 books.

My method of research in clinical neuropsychiatry has followed the normal pattern. However, in most of my work in basic neuroscience has been based on a different procedure. Here I have taken up a problem in a specific field and conducted a widespread interdisciplinary search for data that might suggest a specific hypothesis to solve the problem.


What I think of the idea behind WebmedCentral:

Almost all scientists today are specialists who are unable to do interdisciplinary research. In addition, almost all scientific journals today do not appreciate that the advancement of knowledge depends on creative hypotheses, which they dismiss all too often as “wild speculation”. The history of science, from Galileo and Semmelweiss to plate tectonics, shows time and again that really new ideas tend to be rejected rejected by the in-group.

The present method of publishing in science encourages the suppression of potentially new ideas by an orthdoxy intent on defending its own position and status. Thus the new mode of operation pioneered by WebmedCentral offers great hope for a more dynamic and fruitful mode of operation. I see a great opportunity for WebmedCentral to encourage the development of a scientific ambience where creative ideas will be encouraged and not suppressed. I would like to play a role in this endeavor.