NHS 70 stories - 'Genius' Grey Walter's legacy lives on at Southmead Hospital

Friday, 8 June 2018

While the NHS was in its infancy a pioneer in neurophysiology was at work in the Burden Neurological Institute here in Bristol using robots to demonstrate how the brain works.

Walter Grey

William Grey Walter is still considered a genius in this field and his legacy lives on in the name of Southmead Hospital’s Grey Walter Department of Clinical Neurophysiology.

American-born Grey moved to England in 1915 and went on to study at Westminster School and Cambridge University.

Grey carried out neurophysiological research in hospitals in London from 1935 to 1939, before moving to Bristol to work at the newly-setup research centre in neurophysiology, the Burden Neurological Institute.

Grey wanted to prove that the secret of how the brain worked was down to the connections between a small number of brain cells that could bring about very complex behaviours.

In order to demonstrate his belief Grey constructed two robots, Elmer and Elsie, between 1948 and 1949. The robots were the first of their kind and demonstrated the principle of artificial intelligence as it is now known. Following light and with a built-in bump sensor, the two elements worked together allowing the robots to move around objects.

Grey was a pioneer in robotics and was the President of the Cybernetics Society.

In his early career in London Grey was interested in Hans Berger who invented the EEG machine that measured electrical activity in the brain. Following that visit, Grey developed his own EEG machine called EEG topography that mapped electrical activity across the surface of the brain. Grey’s machine had improved capabilities that allowed detect the variety of brain waves from high speed (alpha) waves to slow (delta) waves that are detected during sleep.

After moving to the Burden Neurological Institute Grey made a number of discoveries that would change our understanding of the brain and shape the work that is carried out today. Using brain waves he was able to locate brain tumours or lesions responsible for epilepsy.

Grey helped establish the British Society of Clinical Neurophysiology (EEG Society) and was a member of the group of academics who were interested in artificial intelligence along with the world famous Alan Turing.

EEG Machine EEG machine at The Burden Neurological Hospital

Riding his motorbike into work on a Saturday morning in 1970, Grey crashed when he tried to avoid a horse that had bolted from a nearby field.

After being rushed to Frenchay Hospital he lapsed into a coma for three weeks. In order to help his recovery neurosurgical repairs took place using techniques that Grey had developed himself. He was also one of the first patients to be investigated in a laboratory at Frenchay Hospital something Grey had helped set up.

Eventually Grey recovered but had lost his vision in one eye and his sense of smell, close friends said he was never the same person after the crash.

Following the accident Grey returned to work at the Burden Neurological Institute in 1971 before retiring in 1975.