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July 20, 2023

Obituary for Prof. John G. Nicholls

The Biozentrum mourns the loss of John Graham Nicholls, emeritus Professor of Pharmacology at the Biozentrum, University of Basel.

Prof. John G. Nicholls

The Biozentrum is mourning the death of Prof. em. John Nicholls, who passed away on July 13, 2023, at the age of 94 years. It bids farewell to a pioneer in neurobiological research and a dedicated and passionate scientist, who played an important role in shaping the institute for 15 years. With his lively and vivid lectures and his fundamental research into the nervous system and its regenerative capacity, he inspired generations of students and young scientists.

Born in London on 19 December, 1929, John Graham Nicholls studied medicine in the 1950s at King’s College in London and earned his degree at Charing Cross Hospital. Later, in 1955, he successfully completed his PhD in Biophysics, under the supervision of the later Nobel Prize Laureate Sir Bernhard Katz, at University College London. During his scientific career he did postdoctoral training at Oxford University and Harvard Medical School. As of 1965 he held professorships at different prestigious Universities such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford. In 1983, he joined the University of Basel, researching and teaching at the Biozentrum as Professor of Pharmacology until 1998, when he retired with emeritus status. His research years in Basel were highly successful and productive. During this period, fundamental works on neuronal networks, synaptic transmission, the origin of the respiratory rhythm as well as regeneration of neurons after spinal cord injury were produced. His success is also mirrored in international distinctions, including being elected as Fellow of the Royal Society in 1988 and in the numerous honorary doctorates, which he received for his contributions. 

Retirement for John Nicholls was no departure from science. Rather it opened up a whole new chapter: As Professor of Neurobiology he further continued his research at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Trieste. Because teaching was always one of Nicholls’ passions, as an emeritus he took on teaching projects around the world, among others at universities in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Furthermore, throughout his life, he was committed to furthering talented students and researchers, who did not have sufficient financial resources. IBRO named a fellowship program for students from less developed countries in his honor. In 2010, for his lifelong commitment, he was awarded the Prize for Education in Neuroscience by the Society for Neuroscience. 

In his more than 50-year career, John Nicholls significantly advanced the neurosciences as an enthusiastic researcher and sponsor and made himself a name in this field. His works were of key importance for the development and application of invertebrate model systems in neurobiology research. As principal author of the book «From Neuron to Brain», which already in 2012 was published in its 5th edition, he bundled the findings of decades of neurobiology research. And in his autobiographical book «Pioneers of Neurobiology: My Brilliant Eccentric Heroes», published only a few years ago, he looks with a very personal and humorous view at neurobiology and its protagonists, some of whom were his friends.

With John Nicholls’ passing, the scientific community and the Biozentrum have lost a remarkable personality, who showed extraordinary responsibility and a deep sense of humanity. The Biozentrum and the University of Basel will continue to remember his achievements in research and teaching with gratitude.

Contact: Communications