When Ronald Melzack first published a paper detailing the gate control theory of pain he had formulated with MIT collaborator Patrick Wall, it seemed unlikely that it would be embraced as one of the most cited neuroscience articles of all time.
"People didn't like the idea at all. The first papers that came out about our work for the first year or two set out to destroy the theory," Melzack, now an professor emeritus in psychology, recalled.
The paper challenged established received wisdom in a big way. In it, Melzack described how pain is not strictly cause and effect: how the brain perceives an injury, is less dependant on the stimulus than past experience and other inputs in the brain itself. In other words, pain is in our heads, not our nerves. This was a radical and controversial approach for the time.
Before Melzack and Wall, "few researchers approached the neurophysiological topic of pain, knew what questions to ask or how to investigate it," according to Kenneth Casey, of the University of Michigan Medical Center. "It was a spring board that helped set the questions that would dominate the field by being so courageously explicit."
Following on this work, Melzack developed the McGill Pain Questionnaire, which remains a widely clinical tool to evaluate pain in patients. Melzack has been honoured with a Killam Prize, and is an Officer of the Order of Canada and l'Ordre du Quebec. On April 29, 2009, he was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, in recognition of his “outstanding contributions to medical science and the improved health and well-being of people everywhere.”