CARL PFAFFMAN, (1912-1994)

Founder (with Lloyd Beidler and Yngve Zotterman) of the International Symposium of Olfaction and Taste. Carl Pfaffmann, born in Brooklyn in 1913, died from the aftereffects of a stroke at age 80.

Pfaffmann wrote, “I remember my first thrill on hearing the discharge of impulses in the audio monitor.  I have never extinguished that ‘gut feeling’ when I hear the crackle of single unit discharges.”

Pfaffmann loved the laboratory.  His devotion to taste began during his undergraduate days at Brown with an honors thesis on human taste sensitivity working with Leonard Carmichael (graduated, 1935).  With his Rhodes Scholarship in hand he went to England first getting a second undergraduate degree in physiology at Oxford and then a PhD at Cambridge with Lord Adrian (1939).  His taste studies in Adrian’s lab astonished everyone.  Expecting to find chorda tympani nerve fibers in the cat that were specific to the four basic tastes, he found instead that all of the fibers he tested responded to acid with some responding to salt or quinine as well; none responded to sugar.  This led to Pfaffmann’s famous pattern theory: taste quality was coded by a pattern across fibers not by fibers specific to the four basic tastes.  Further work revealed more order than appeared in the early cat study and led Pfaffmann to suggest in 1974 that the labeled-line theory was still a contender in taste.

Pfaffmann never forgot his roots in behavioral science.  He noted that, “Indeed it can be said that without behavioral study, hand in hand with physiological and anatomical methods, one gets only a partial insight: telling where, and to some degree how, but not for what!” This broad perspective led him to look at hedonic as well as sensory behavior leading to one of his most delightful papers:  “The Pleasures of Sensation.”  Pfaffmann was also interested in “experiments of nature.”  His fascination with clinical pathology in taste did not flag even when the pathology was his own.  Pfaffmann suffered from Ramsey-Hunt’s Syndrome: damage to his left cranial nerve VIII, the auditory nerve.  Because of the proximity of VIII to the taste nerves VII (chorda tympani) and IX (glossopharyngeal), he lost not only his hearing but also taste on his left side. The story of his recovery from that damage was presented at AChemS in 1989 and 1990.

Pfaffmann was devoted to his wife, Louise, his children Charles, William and Ellen as well as his grandchildren.  He was also devoted to his academic family; he produced 21 doctoral students.  


His many honors included election to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  He received the Warren Medal (Society of Experimental Psychologists), the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (American Psychological Association) and was President of the Eastern Psychological Association and the Division of Experimental Psychology of the American Psychological Association.

Contributed by Linda Bartoshuk and Richard Costanzo