The Evolution of Endocrinology

Plenary Lecture at the 12th International Congress of Endocrinology, Lisbon, Portugal, 31 August 2004

Jean D. Wilson


Clin Endocrinol. 2005;62(4):389-396. 

In This Article

The Present

With regard to its anchoring in clinical medicine and continuing interaction between clinical and basic scientists, endocrinology today resembles the field in the early twentieth century. The profound changes in the field in the past 75 years are largely due to the application of advances in other fields chemistry, physics, cell and molecular biology, genetics, immunology, neuroscience and cybernetics so that hormones are now discovered, synthesized, measured and investigated in new ways. The shift of focus to hormone action moved molecular endocrinology into the mainstream of cellular and developmental biology, and advances of several types have eroded the separations between endocrinology, neurobiology and immunology.

Endocrine science continues to be one of the most dynamic disciplines of biomedical science, and endocrinology is the most quantitative of the clinical specialties. There is probably no arena of medicine in which collaboration between the clinical and basic sciences has been more productive. This Congress is held to celebrate the recent developments in the field.

It is also appropriate to consider the impact that endocrinology has had on other branches of biomedical science. We have described many of these impacts. Probably the most important is scientifically designed therapies such as insulin and oral contraceptives, two of the very important therapeutic advances of the twentieth century. A second was the application of the concept of feedback control to other biological systems.[45] A third impact is the radioimmunoassay, which spread from endocrinology throughout biology and is one of the most widely used methods for the measurement of biological mediators. A fourth impact was the discovery of cyclic AMP and the G proteins, which transformed our understanding of signal transduction.

Another way to assess the impact of endocrinology on science is to look at the 15 Nobel Prizes awarded in the field since 1909, when Kocher received the Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the surgical treatment of hyperthyroidism ( Table 3 ). A second award (to Huggins) was also for therapy of disease. Nine of the Prizes honoured hormone discovery, structure, synthesis or measurement. Three were for physiological studies (to Dale and Loewi, to Houssay, and to Von Euler, Katz and Axelrod). Only two awards (to Sutherland and to Gilman and Rodbell) were for studies of hormone action. The fact that many advances in endocrinology have been recognized by the scientific establishment is a source of pride. Others will be awarded in the future.


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