Julius Bernstein (1839-1917): pioneer neurobiologist and biophysicist

Biol Cybern. 2006 Jan;94(1):2-8. doi: 10.1007/s00422-005-0031-y. Epub 2005 Dec 8.


Julius Bernstein belonged to the Berlin school of "organic physicists" who played a prominent role in creating modern physiology and biophysics during the second half of the nineteenth century. He trained under du Bois-Reymond in Berlin, worked with von Helmholtz in Heidelberg, and finally became Professor of Physiology at the University of Halle. Nowadays his name is primarily associated with two discoveries: (1) The first accurate description of the action potential in 1868. He developed a new instrument, a differential rheotome (= current slicer) that allowed him to resolve the exact time course of electrical activity in nerve and muscle and to measure its conduction velocity. (2) His 'Membrane Theory of Electrical Potentials' in biological cells and tissues. This theory, published by Bernstein in 1902, provided the first plausible physico-chemical model of bioelectric events; its fundamental concepts remain valid to this day. Bernstein pursued an intense and long-range program of research in which he achieved a new level of precision and refinement by formulating quantitative theories supported by exact measurements. The innovative design and application of his electromechanical instruments were milestones in the development of biomedical engineering techniques. His seminal work prepared the ground for hypotheses and experiments on the conduction of the nervous impulse and ultimately the transmission of information in the nervous system. Shortly after his retirement, Bernstein (1912) summarized his electrophysiological work and extended his theoretical concepts in a book Elektrobiologie that became a classic in its field. The Bernstein Centers for Computational Neuroscience recently established at several universities in Germany were named to honor the person and his work.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article
  • Portrait

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biophysics / history*
  • Germany
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Membranes / metabolism*
  • Models, Biological
  • Neurobiology / history*