John Zachary Young

John Zachary Young bigraphy, stories - English zoologist and neurophysiologist. Professor of anatomy and author

John Zachary Young : biography

18 March 1907 – 4 July 1997

John Zachary Young FRS (18 March 1907 – 4 July 1997), generally known as "JZ" or "JZY", was an English zoologist and neurophysiologist, described as "one of the most influential biologists of the 20th century … He had a huge presence, imposing stature and enormous energy and enthusiasm for his research and for the imaginative understanding and interpretation of the nervous system and brain function."The Guardian; July 14, 1997, p13

Research work

Most of his scientific research was on the nervous system. He discovered the squid giant axon and the corresponding squid giant synapse. His work in the 1930s on signal transmission in, and the fibre structure of, nerves inspired the work of Sir Andrew Huxley and Sir Alan Hodgkin for which they received a Nobel prize.

During World War II, responding to the large number of nerve injuries sustained by soldiers in combat and by his pioneering work in comparative anatomy and the regrowth of damaged nerves in squids and octopuses, Young set up a unit at the University of Oxford to study nerve regeneration in mammals. His wartime team, investigating the biochemical conditions which control nerve fibre growth, also sought ways to accelerate the repair of peripheral nerves severed by injury. Working with Peter Medawar, Young found a way to rejoin small peripheral nerves using a "glue" of plasma. This method was eventually modified and used in surgery.

After the war, Young’s research interests turned to investigating the central nervous system and the functions of the brain. Continuing to experiment on squids, octopuses and other cephalopods, Young found that they could be trained to respond in specific ways to visual stimuli. At the advent of the Korean War in June 1950, Young was commissioned by the British government to begin the training of a ‘Squid Army’ which were intended to be used for reconnaissance prior to the amphibious landings at Inchon, as well as the destruction of the North Korean Naval Forces which proved a constant threat to the convoys of UN troops being unloaded onto the Korean peninsula throughout the war. However, the war ended before Young could complete the training of the twenty or so Giant Squids provided to him, and the British government quickly withdrew all funding from the project a month later.

In 1950, Young was invited by the BBC to deliver the Reith Lectures. For his series of eight radio broadcasts, titled , he introduced the BBC audience to the themes of his research, exploring the function of the brain and the then-current scientific methods used to increase understanding of it.

However, he is probably best remembered for his two textbooks, The Life of Vertebrates and The Life of Mammals.

He was President of the Marine Biological Association from 1976 to 1986. His personal research library is held in the at the MBA.

A memorial service was held for him in the Chapel of Magdalen College, Oxford, on 9 November 1997.


  • The Life of Vertebrates. 1st ed 767pp 1950 (corrected 1952 repr); 2nd ed 820pp 1962; 3rd ed 645pp 1981
  • , 1950 BBC .
  • Doubt and Certainty in Science, 1951
  • The Life of Mammals. 1st ed 820pp 1957; 2nd ed 528pp 1975
  • A Model of the Brain, 1964
  • The Memory System of the Brain, 1966
  • An Introduction to the Study of Man, 1971
  • The Anatomy of the Nervous System of Octopus vulgaris, 1971
  • Programs of the Brain, 1978 (1975-77 Gifford Lectures, )
  • Philosophy and the Brain, 1987
  • Many scientific papers, mostly on the nervous system.


Young went to school at Marlborough College, an independent school in Wiltshire, England. In 1928, he received a first class honours degree in zoology from Magdalen College, Oxford. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1945 and served as Professor of Anatomy at University College London from then until 1974. The following year, he became a Professor Emeritus and proposed a degree programme in the Human Sciences.

Among his honors are a Linnean Medal for zoology from the Linnean Society of London, awarded in 1973, and honorary citizenship of the city of Naples, Italy, granted in 1991. He was awarded an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Science) by the University of Bath in 1974.

Young revered the brother of his great-great- grandfather, Richard, the English scientist and Egyptologist Thomas Young, M.D., F.R.S. (1773–1829).

Personal life

John married twice – Phyllis first and then later, Raye. He had one child with Raye, Kate, who now has three children (John’s grandchildren) – Gulliver, Dickon and Francis. In the later part of his life he lived in Brill, Buckinghamshire with Raye.


Young traveled to Naples for many years, for his summer experimenting season, at the Stazione Zoologica di Napoli which he had first known as a student occupying the Oxford research ‘Table’. In Naples, he was known as "Professore" at his favorite restaurants. Young was awarded an honorary citizenship by the City of Naples for his services to science, in particular for the studies he conducted at the Stazione. Young was also awarded the Stazione’s Gold Medal by the President of the Stazione Zoologica at a concert given in his honour in October 1991. In 1991 he was invited by the Italian Biological Society to make an anniversary lecture, when he was the oldest living member of the society; for this lecture, Young picked the same subject he had talked about 63 years earlier, in 1928.