Robert Barany

Timothy C. Hain, M.D. Last updated on August 24, 2020

Robert Barany

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Robert Bárány was born on April 22, 1876, in Vienna. His father was the manager of a farm estate and his mother, Maria Hock, was the daughter of a well-known Prague scientist. After completing his medical studies at Vienna University in 1900, Bárány attended the lectures of Professor C. von Noorden in Frankfurt am Main for one year, and then studied at the psychiatric-neurological clinic of Professor Kracpelin in Freiburg i.Br. It was there that his interest in neurological problems was first awakened. On his return to Vienna in 1903, he accepted a post as demonstrator at the Otological Clinic under Professor Politzer. (Nobel Lectures, 1967)

The caloric response was first described in by Robert Barany in 1906, and more completely in a book on the vestibular system in 1907. His findings were immediately considered pivotal and Barany received the Nobel Prize in 1914. However, his colleagues at the Vienna University Clinic were less enthusiastic and suggested that he took the ideas of others and presented them as his own. Barany worked with Alexander, Heinrich Neumann, and Politzer -- all otologists at the time.

Ear-wax syringing was the basis for Barany getting the Nobel Prize.

As Barany described it in his speech to the Nobel prize committee, he discovered the caloric response when he was removing ear wax. A patient volunteered that the water was too cool and made her dizzy. A nurse got him some hotter water, and the patient got dizzy again. Barany noticed that the eyes jumped in opposite directions according to the temperature of the water, and he suddenly realized that heat/cold were causing the dizziness. We think this is a wonderful example of how being mindful, while doing the most mundane task, can result in getting the Nobel prize.

Alexander suggested that he rather than Barany first described the fistula test, and also that he had jointly described with Barany, ocular counter-roll. Alexander is now best known for his description of the effects of gaze on spontaneous nystagmus, Alexander's law.

Adam Politzer is best known for his work on the eustachian tube and middle ear function. A procedure where the middle ear is inflated is called "self Politzerization". There is a "Politzer" society in the world, devoted to these issues.

Neuman claimed that he had been critical in discovering the mechanism of the caloric response. (Baloh, 2002). Neuman became head of the Vienna Otology clinic after Politzer retired.

Despite being awarded the Nobel prize, Robert Barany lived a quiet and even lonely existence in Uppsala Sweden after World War I. He died of cerebral hemorrhages due to malignant hypertension.

The Barany society is a small international society of vestibular scholars, that continues to exist in Uppsala.


Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1967