Bernard Katz was born in Leipzig, Germany on March 26, 1911. He was educated at the König-Albert-Gymnasium in that city from 1921 to 1929 and went on to study medicine at the University of Leipzig. He received his M.D. in 1934., and fled to Britain in February 1935; the rise of Hitler having made his mixed Russian-Jewish heritage dangerous. He went to work at University College of London (UCL), initially under the tutelage of Archibald Vivian Hill.
He finished his Ph.D. in 1938 and won a Carnegie Fellowship to study with John Carew Eccles at Sydney Hospital, Australia. He was naturalized in 1941 and joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 1942. He spent the war in the Pacific as a radar officer. In 1946, he returned to UCL as an assistant director. Katz was made a professor at UCL in 1952 and head of biophysics; he was also elected to the Royal Society. He stayed as head of biophysics until 1978 when he became emeritus professor.
His research uncovered fundamental properties of synapses, the junctions across which nerve cells signal to each other and to other types of cells. By the 1950s, he was studying the biochemistry and action of acetylcholine, a signalling molecule with which synapses linking "motor nerves" to muscles stimulate contraction. Katz won the Nobel Prize for his discovery that neurotransmitter release at synapses is "quantal"--that is, that at any particular synapse the amount of neurotransmitter released is never less than a certain amount, and if more is always an integral number times this amount. This circumstance arises, scientists now know, because, prior to their release into the synaptic gap, transmitter molecules reside in like-sized subcellular packages known as synaptic vesicles (more at exocytosis).
Katz's work had immediate influence on the study of organophosphates and organochlorines, the basis of new post-war study for nerve agents and pesticides, as he determined that the complex enzyme cycle was easily disrupted.
He shared the 1970 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Julius Axelrod and Ulf von Euler for their work on nerve biochemistry. He was knighted in 1970.
Katz died at the age of 92, on April 20, 2003, in London, England.
The following press release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences describes Katz's work:
The discoveries which this year's Nobel laureates have made have given us answer to questions of fundamental importance for the understanding of the mechanism underlying the transmission between the nerve cells, i.e. at the so-called synapses, and between the nerve terminals and the so-called effector organs, for instance between the motor nerve fibers and the muscle fibers which they innervate. The transmission between the nerve cells, which radically differs from the mechanisms underlying the impulse transmission in the nerve fibers, is mediated by chemical substances, so-called neurotransmitters, which carry the message from one cell to the other. The three scientists have been working independently of each other, but their discoveries all contribute in solving principal questions concerning the neurotransmitters, their storage, release and inactivation.
Sir Bernard Katz' discoveries concerning the mechanism for the release of the transmitter acetylcholine from the nerve terminals at the nerve-muscle junction, under the influence of the nerve impulses, are fundamental not only for the understanding of the so-called cholinergic transmission, but are also of primary importance for our knowledge about the synaptic transmission between the nerve cells in the central nervous system.