Since the award was first given in 1901, several Nobel Prizes have been awarded for research changing the understanding of vestibular organs and the inner ear.
In 1914, Austro-Hungarian otologist Robert Bárány, MD, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. It was “for his work on the physiology and pathology of the vestibular apparatus,” according to the Nobel Foundation. He worked on the development of new tools for looking at the balance system of the inner ear.
Prior to his work, the anatomy of inner ear had been well outlined. Dr. Bárány’s research built on that foundation, and described how head rotation was integrated by the sensory organs of the inner ear. He realized that injecting cold or warm water into the auditory canal stimulated the semicircular canals of the inner ear. This suggested temperature changes in the canal created convection movements of endolymphatic fluid, activating the inner ear’s motion sensing systems. This caloric test is still used in research and in routine vestibular system assessments.
Dr. Bárány was not able to receive the award until 1916, following his release from a Russian prisoner-of-war camp. He was a civilian surgeon attached to the Austrian Army when captured.
A biophysicist who started his research while working for the Hungarian Post Office won the second Nobel Prize with an otolaryngology impact. The 1961 Prize for Medicine or Physiology was awarded to Georg von Békésy, PhD, for his work describing the workings of the inner ear.
Dr. Békésy developed ways to dissect the human ear from a cadaver leaving the cochlea partly intact. Using strobe photography in conjunction with silver flakes as markers, he observed movement in basal membrane stimulated by sound. Different frequencies of sound caused maximal amplitudes to occur at different places along the coil.
This observation, he concluded, showed that sound waves were being locally dispersed before exciting the nerve fibers connecting the cochlea with the brain. This suggested that placement of hair cells along the coil corresponded to a specific frequency. This is the basis for tonotopic or plane coding where the hair cells showing the greatest response were those involved in coding for the fundamental frequency of the sound.