Obituary: David H. Hubel / Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist

Feb. 27, 1926 - Sept. 22, 1913


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David H. Hubel, a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist whose astonishing map of the visual cortex pulled back the curtain on one of the brain's most mysterious functions, the power of sight, died Sunday at Lincoln, Mass. He was 87.

The cause was kidney failure, said his son Paul Hubel.

Starting in the late 1950s, Dr. Hubel's research revealed the architecture of the visual cortex, the region of the brain that receives floods of data gathered by the eyes.

Together with Swedish neurophysiologist and physician Torsten N. Wiesel, he discovered how nerve cells -- neurons -- analyze the light rays that hit our retinas, bit by bit, to assemble the detailed, moving and almost infinitely diverse final images that we perceive as our external world.

Over 25 years of work together, the men revealed that the cortex is arranged in vertical columns of cells, each module devoted to process a different constituent of the seen world: form, contour, color, movement and three-dimensionality.

For their collaboration, begun at Johns Hopkins University and carried out for the next two decades at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Hubel and Dr. Wiesel won the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. They shared the prize with Roger W. Sperry, then affiliated with the California Institute of Technology.

When the men began studying the visual system, little was known about the functional organization of the cerebral cortex, and scientists had only recently begun recording electrical impulses from that highest and most complex area of the brain. The Nobel Prize committee cited the two men's research as having "disclosed one of the most well guarded secrets of the brain: the way by which its cells decode the message which the brain receives from the eyes."

In their first experiments together in 1958, Dr. Hubel and Dr. Wiesel, an inquisitive and often mischievous pair, crammed a projector inside their 15-by-15-foot laboratory at Johns Hopkins and sat their research cats, adorned in electrical headgear, before a screen.

They displayed spots of all sizes before the animals -- dark spots on bright backgrounds and bright spots on dark -- trying to find a stimulus that could coax a single neuron, wired to a surgically implanted electrode, to fire.

For the first several days, they got no response. Desperate, they danced in front of the cats waving their arms. At one point, mostly as a joke, they presented the cats with pictures of beautiful women in magazine advertisements.

In the scientists' 2004 co-memoir, "Brain and Visual Perception: The Story of a 25-Year Collaboration," they described that "our room must have seemed like a circus, complete with a tent and exotic animals."

It was a shadow created when Dr. Hubel and Dr. Wiesel were rearranging their equipment -- a faint line that swept across the projector screen in one specific orientation -- that made a cat neuron fire. It was a serendipitous first step in a career-long journey of understanding the visual system.

Dr. Hubel recalled that, upon discovery, they studied this first cat neuron for nine hours straight. In their seminal 1959 publication of these findings, they wrote, "of course gives no hint of our struggle. As usual in science reports we presented the bare results, with little of the sense of excitement or fun."

David Hunter Hubel was born Feb. 27, 1926, in Windsor, Ontario, to American parents and raised in Montreal. His father was a chemical engineer, and the younger Hubel developed an interest in science as a child.

At McGill University in Montreal, he graduated with honors in mathematics and physics in 1947. Though accepted to graduate school for physics, he applied to McGill's medical school on a whim. He was accepted.He enrolled having taken only one biology class, a summer course on invertebrate zoology and botany, and graduated in 1951. During his medical internship, Dr. Hubel met his future wife, Ruth Izzard, at the university choral society, where they sang together. They married in 1953.

His wife died in February. Survivors include three sons, Carl Hubel of Pittsburgh, Eric Hubel of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Paul Hubel of Mountain View, Calif.; and four grandchildren.

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