As a youth in the Adelaide, Australia, of his birth, William Ross Adey, known universally to his many friends and colleagues as “Ross,” had the advantages of supportive parents and the freedom to indulge the natural instincts of youth at the seashore, observing marine life in tidal pools, reading books, and building radios in the family basement. A precocious child, he graduated from high school at age 14, and by 21 had received degrees in medicine (M.B.) and surgery (B.S.) from the University of Adelaide.
Recalling his early years in a June 2002 interview, Adey said, “I was absolutely fascinated by radio. I started building crystal sets as most kids did at that age. It grew beyond that, and by the time I was 13 and 14, I had built quite a number of very large vacuum tube sets, valves as we called them. I got an amateur radio license when I was 17 years old.” Throughout his life, radio framed his professional and social activities far more than any ordinary hobby.
After his first clinical position at Royal Adelaide Hospital in 1944, he soon was aboard the cruiser Shropshire as a Surgeon Lieutenant in the Royal Australian Navy (1945–1946), where he first encountered the new technology of radar. Years later, Adey reminisced, “In rough seas on cold nights, we would go into the radar hut and warm ourselves with the stray emissions that drove the radar antennas.”
His first publication, based on research conducted for his M.D. degree (1949, the University of Adelaide) was an electromyographic study of a type of chronic myopathy. The blending of electronics and scientific research that would mark his career gave other early fruit with construction of the first Australian six-channel recorder of brain electrical signals, which was put to use for clinical research on epileptic children and for laboratory studies. His second publication, on the motor mechanisms in the brain of anurans, was followed by a stream of neuranatomical studies in species ranging from earthworms to Australian marsupials and monkeys.
Upon receiving the prestigious Nuffield Foundation Fellowship in Medicine in 1950, Adey traveled to the University of Oxford for postgraduate research on limbic system structural anatomy and its pathways to the diencephalon. The return trip from England to Adelaide included a stopover in Los Angeles, which led, three years later, to the start of a 23-year-long association with UCLA Medical School, where he was Professor of Anatomy and Physiology for 20 years. Even today, former students, now senior practitioners and researchers, reflect with awe on the clarity and comprehension evident in Adey’s lectures in neuroanatomy. His lectures showed mastery of neuroanatomical detail and complexity, neuroembryology, and higher brain functions—all securely held in memory and delivered in sculpted flowing prose.
Adey and his colleagues at UCLA and the UCLA Brain Research Institute made pioneering advances in the neuroanatomy of the limbic system and its behavioral and pathological correlates, measurements of the electrical properties of brain tissue, spectral analysis of EEG, and the mechanisms of memory.
Driven by the need to obtain the physiological knowledge required to fulfill President Kennedy’s commitment to put a man on the moon in the 1960s, Adey, as Director of the Space Biology Laboratory (1961 to 1974) at the UCLA Brain Research Institute, conducted animal and human research. His laboratory developed the technology for biotelemetry from space that allowed EEG recordings from astronauts Lovell and Borman showing the effects of weightlessness on brain function.
Driven by the idea that higher brain functions needed a distributed information system that might be carried by the brain’s own electrical activity, Adey and colleagues at the UCLA Laboratory of Environmental Neurobiology, including Suzanne Bawin, and Rochelle Gavalas-Medici, began to study whether it might be possible to use modulated radio-frequency fields as a means to probe brain function. In his 2002 interview, Adey recalled the question that led to the first studies with amplitude-modulated radio-frequency fields. “If we made a radio signal look like a brain wave, would it influence behavior? We showed in cats very clearly, and monkeys to some extent, that you could make the brain wave pattern follow the modulation on the radio signal.”
Drawing on the nonthermal nature of behavioral, in vivo, and in vitro studies on the nervous system that sprang from his laboratory, Adey took his quest beyond the fabric of chemical reactions to delve into the physical organization of biological tissue that could underpin responses to very low energy levels. In this phase, conducted over a period of more than 25 years at the Jerry L. Pettis Memorial Veterans Medical Center (Loma Linda, California), Loma Linda University, and the University of California, Riverside, he and his colleagues addressed the effects of extremely low frequency electric and magnetic fields, and radio waves of the type used for mobile telephony. Forward-looking and excited by science until his last days, he took delight in the recent discovery by European researchers of tunneling nanotubules because they made manifest at the ultrastructural level further evidence for a general physical plan for varieties of intercellular communication.
Adey wrote, spoke, and argued forcefully for a thorough and fair examination of public health questions that he saw conjoined with a nascent understanding of profound questions in biophysics and cell biology. In pursuit of the latter, he was determined that society not be swayed by simplistic, and even worse, politically-motivated ideas, in place of accurate and complete scientific knowledge. No one who saw him in action will forget the vigor of his speech and the sting of his polemics.
Those who had the good fortune to be among his collaborators were struck by his depth of perception, breadth of knowledge, trust in the scientific method, inexhaustible energy, patient attention to detail, and prodigious memory.
Adey’s numerous friends worldwide knew of his affection and fierce devotion to each of them; his gentlemanly grace and refined manners; his ire when provoked; his patient and deep caring for them and their family members; his love of Shakespeare—quoted fully and precisely, should the occasion arise; his love of the mountains for both wintertime skiing and summertime hiking; his pride in an accomplished family now with a seventh generation training in medicine and science; and for the numerous times he carried his tall, gaunt, frame 26 miles and 385 yards to the finish line, even into his late seventies.
His own words from a letter of June 2003 capture his vision for bioelectromagnetics and feelings about The Bioelectromagnetics Society, and recall a forward-looking life lived intensely and fully:
“It is with deep regrets that I write to inform you that I will not be attending the 25th Anniversary meeting of the Society next week…. Nevertheless, I would be grateful if you would convey my warmest wishes to my many friends and colleagues in the Society. I am ever mindful of the great honor bestowed on me by the Society in the award of the d’Arsonval Medal. I look forward to a future for the Society in which its policies and plans will be integral in defining a physical essence of living matter through use of a broad spectrum of electromagnetic tools.”
– Asher Sheppard