Von Békésy, Georg (1899-1972) was a Hungarian-born American physicist won the 1961 Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology for his research on the physical mechanism of hearing. He was the first physicst to win the prize.
Von Békésy was born in 1899 in Budapest. His father was a diplomat, and von Békésy grew up in several cities besides Budapest, including Munich, Constantinople, and Zurich. He graduated with a degree in chemistry from the University of Bern, Switzerland, in 1920. In 1923, he prepared his dissertation on fluid dynamics and earned a Ph.D. degree in physics from the University of Budapest. He then worked as a communications engineer in the laboratory of the Hungarian Postal, Telephone and Telegraph System. There, he investigated the cause of persistent malfunctions in the telephone system, which he ultimately discovered were due to sound distortions in the earphones of the receivers. This work led to von Békésy's interest in how the human ear functions.
Von Békésy worked primarily for the telephone company until 1946. He was also a lecturer (1932–1939), a special professor (1939–1940), and a full professor (1940–1946) at the University of Budapest. From 1946 to 1947, he conducted research at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, where he designed and built very small instruments in order to do inner-ear dissections. In 1947, he was appointed research lecturer at the psycho-acoustic laboratory at Harvard University. From 1949 to 1966, he was a senior research fellow there. He designed a model of a cochlea (the spiral canal of the inner ear), and with it demonstrated how sound moves along the cochlea. Sound waves produce a vibration at particular points along the basilar membrane of the cochlea, with the higher-pitched waves peaking nearer the base of the cochlea than the lower pitches. These sound waves stimulate nerve receptors which then send the auditory message to the brain for interpretation.
In 1966, he became professor of sensory sciences at the University of Hawaii, where he stayed until his death in 1972.