John Zachary Young

John Zachary Young,
M.A. (Oxon), D.Sc., LL.D., FRS

John Zachary Young in 1978
Born (1907-03-18)18 March 1907
Bristol, England
Died 4 July 1997(1997-07-04) (Age 90)
Oxford, England
Nationality British
Fields Zoology, Anatomy, Physiology
Institutions University College London,
Alma mater Magdalen College, University of Oxford
Known for Research on the giant axon of the squid
Influenced Semir Zeki
Notable awards Royal Medal (1967)
Linnean Medal (1973)

John Zachary Young FRS[1] (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."[2]


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. On Oct. 12, 1942, Young spoke at the Socratic Club in Oxford on the topic "Purpose and Design in Nature" as part of the series of talks and debates led by C. S. Lewis. 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.[3]

In 1981, Young became a founding member of the World Cultural Council.[4]

Young revered[5] the brother of his great-great- grandfather, Richard, the English scientist and Egyptologist Thomas Young, M.D., F.R.S. (1773–1829).[1]

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.

In 1950, Young was invited by the BBC to deliver the Reith Lectures. For his series of eight radio broadcasts, titled Doubt and Certainty in Science, 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 National Marine Biological Library]at the MBA.

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


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.

Personal life

Young was born in Mangotsfield near Bristol. He lived in Oxford as an undergraduate then as a graduate then he moved to London when he became Professor of Anatomy at University College London (the chair of the department is now named the J. Z. Young Chair). He lived first in Chelsea then moved to Camden Town in 1962. After his retirement in 1974 he gradually moved from London to an old brick kiln house in Brill in Buckinghamshire. Young continued to work (for most of his retirement) at the Stazione Zoologica in Naples every summer as well as at a laboratory in the Psychology Department of Oxford University. He carried on doing research and publishing scientific papers until (and beyond) his death in July 1997. Young married twice, Phyllis Heaney (a painter) with whom he had two children, Simon Zachary and Cordelia. In 1987 following the death of Phyllis he married Raymonde Parsons (also an artist) with whom he had one child: Kate Frances.



  1. 1 2 Boycott, B. B. (1998). "John Zachary Young. 18 March 1907-4 July 1997". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 44: 487–509. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1998.0031. PMID 11623988.
  2. The Guardian; 14 July 1997, p13
  3. Honorary Graduates 1966 to 1988 | University of Bath. Retrieved on 26 June 2014.
  4. "About Us". World Cultural Council. Retrieved November 8, 2016.
  5. Young, John Zachary (1964). A Model of the Brain. William Withering Lectures. Clarendon Press. p. 31.


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Academic offices
Preceded by
Harold Munro Fox
Fullerian Professor of Physiology
Succeeded by
Richard John Harrison
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