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Edith Bulbring

27 December 1903
5 July 1990 (age 86)

Edith Bulbring was a pioneer in smooth muscle research (the muscles found in the walls of hollow organs such as the intestines and stomach) and she was one of the first women to be accepted as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Bulbring was born in Bonn, the youngest of four children, to a Jewish mother. She studied physiology at Bonn University and originally planned to become a doctor. After graduating, she spent a year as a house physician in Berlin, and then a further two years working as an unpaid assistant pharmacologist, supported by her family. In 1932, she was working in the infectious disease unit at Virchow Hospital in Berlin, but she was dismissed by the Nazis due to her Jewish background.

The following year, while on holiday in England, she was offered a job working as an assistant to J H Burn, who had set up biological standardisation laboratories for the Pharmaceutical Society. Bulbring published papers on biological standardisation, and her experiments on animal muscle fibres. These experiments, involving the nervous system and muscle contraction, had a lasting impact on her scientific development.  

When J H Burn became chair of pharmacology at Oxford, he built Bulbring a laboratory there. She began her work on smooth muscle in 1950; this research was to occupy her for the next 40 years. She investigated many aspects of smooth muscle, including electrical activity, oxygen consumption and response to drugs. Her early papers attracted many visiting scientists to Oxford and she was able to build up a large research group that gained significant funding.

Her work and that of her collaborators paved the way for the present era of the single cell, and laid the foundations upon which present cellular investigations of smooth muscle are based.

Alison Brading and Tom Bolton, Jewish Women’s Archive.

Bulbring investigated action potential; caused by the coordinated movement of ions across the nerve cell membrane. She showed that the action potential in smooth muscle was related to the influence of calcium ions and that the action potential in skeletal and cardiac muscle was because of sodium ions. As a result of Bulbring’s work smooth muscle research became increasingly important.

In 1958, Bulbring was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society. She won many other awards, including the Wellcome Gold Medal in Pharmacology in 1985. Although she retired in 1971 she continued her research for a number of years afterwards.