Nobel Scientist David Hubel Had Strong Wellesley Connections

October 4, 2013

Wellesley mourns the passing of a friend, mentor, and colleague in Professor David Hubel of Harvard University, a Nobel laureate and a Distinguished Visiting Fellow in the Wellesley Neuroscience Department. Hubel died on September 22 of kidney failure.

As obituaries in The New York Times and The Boston Globe recount, Hubel’s work on vision and the brain with Torsten Wiesel at Harvard Medical School illuminated the way visual perceptions works in the mind. Hubel’s and Wiesel’s collaboration became “one of the best-known partnerships in science,” according to the Times, stretching over decades. The two men were honored with the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1981 for their research, sharing it with Roger Sperry.

For Wellesley, Hubel’s intellectual depth was matched by a strong commitment to teaching the next generation of neuroscientists, and a warm and gracious personality marked by a remarkable sense of humor. Each semester, Hubel gave a lecture to the introductory neuroscience course (NEUR100) at Wellesley about his research on vision and the brain. “He would show the original videos of neurons in the brain firing in response to specific visual stimuli (black bars moving in specific directions),” said Marc Tetel. “These experiment are discussed in detail in every major neuroscience textbook. I always loved watching the amazement on our students' faces as they watched the stimuli move across the screen and hear the neurons firing! All of our Neuroscience 100 students—about 90 a year—have experienced this lecture.” Hubel refused to accept an honorarium for his lectures at Wellesley, but instead requested to have dinner with a few students during each visit. “So after each lecture,” said Tetel, “eight students who had won the lottery got to go out to dinner with David. This was definitely the high point of the course for these lucky students.”

Outside of his lectures, Hubel inspired the first Neuroscience 100 practicum, a miniature lab focused on the properties of electronics in illuminating the way neurons function in the brain. Hubel donated funds to the college to be used as a writing scholarship, which has become the Hubel Thesis Writing Prize in recognition of a senior thesis by a neuroscience major that is outstanding in both quality of scientific research and quality of writing. In 2011, Hubel also established the Ruth and David Hubel Endowed Fund for Summer Internships in Neuroscience, which remains available to Wellesley students in perpetuity.

We asked members of the Wellesley neuroscience community who knew Hubel to share their memories of him.

Bevil Conway, Associate Professor of Neuroscience

David inspired countless generations of neuroscientists. His invention of the tungsten microelectrode in 1957 and subsequent report, in 1959, of the discovery of simple cells in visual cortex, transformed neuroscience, launching in its wake hundreds of careers and opening up entirely new ways of thinking about brain function. He had the clarity of conviction that the brain should be understandable in mechanistic terms, that the bits could be taken apart and understood like a toaster. He was unsatisfied with descriptions of neural function as "complex", seeing in that term an admission of failure to understand. David pursued the truth, and his steadfast belief that truth could be found through hard work, attention to detail, creativity, and perseverance continues to inspire me in my lab and classroom. David was a close friend. I miss him enormously.

Barbara Beltz, Allene Lummis Russell Professor of Neuroscience, Director of the Neuroscience Program

David was generous in both mind and spirit, as his interactions with our students and his contributions to their education show. He was truly remarkable in his ability to connect with students, and particularly undergraduates. I have known David as a colleague since before he was awarded the Nobel in 1981 (I was a postdoc at Harvard Medical School in the Neurobiology Department where he was on the faculty), and his approach to students has always been warm and encouraging, and unaffected by the many prizes and accolades he received. He also had a wonderful sense of humor, often poking fun at himself in a mildly self-deprecating way. Years ago he gave me a copy of his book, written with Torsten Wiesel, Brain and Visual Perception. At the end of the inscription that he wrote inside the cover, he added in parentheses “You don't need to read this—it's for coffee tables.” A very typical Hubel comment.

Marc Tetel, Class of 1966 Associate Professor of Neuroscience

One of my favorite memories of David was in 2008 when I taught our first neuroscience senior capstone seminar. David visited the class of 10 students to talk about “thinking,” how one needs to think in science and how to go about accomplishing it. Later in the semester he had hip surgery and was getting stir crazy in his house. So I took my capstone students to his house for lunch. We met his wonderful wife Ruth and talked about all of their travels around the world, about music and literature. He loved playing and listening to music, so one student had brought her violin and played for him and another sang and played a song on his piano. As much as David enjoyed the afternoon, our students were captivated and inspired by the event. I still have students tell me how important that experience was to them.

Cleo Stoughton '11

When Bevil [Conway]'s lab at Harvard Medical School was just starting up, David gave us some of his space to work in. So, in the days that David was still coming in to HMS regularly, we went over most afternoons to have tea with him. It always amazed me how talented he was at so many things. Hanging on the wall in his office were these gorgeous rugs that he himself had made. And he kept his flute in his office (two flutes, actually), and there was always sheet music open to whichever piece he was working on at the moment. And, of course, there was the science too. My first summer in the lab, we had a special lab meeting with him to walk through one of his very influential papers from the ’60s. He was a great teacher and a wonderful mentor, with lots of good advice and a great sense of humor. I think his presence will always be felt at the medical school and beyond, and I'm glad to have so many fond memories of him to hold on to.  

Kia Salehi '13

I think I appreciate more and more having had the opportunity (opportunities!) to meet him and hear him speak; at the time, I barely had a clue just how profound his influence on the field was. Now, leaving Wellesley and still (of course) hearing his name come up in the neuroscience class I'm auditing here, I feel so lucky to have taken and tutored NEUR100 when I did. The program won't be the same without him but I will never stop being inspired by his example!

Rosa Lafer-Sousa '09

David was a titan and his loss is devastating, not just to the field of neuroscience, where he made his most significant contributions, but also to the Wellesley community. David’s commitment to advancing Wellesley women in neuroscience was a daily enterprise for the last six years and it had a profound impact on my life. During this time David was a teacher, a mentor, and a friend. His ability to elucidate complex concepts with unparalleled ease and grace made him an incredible asset during my education, and we are fortunate that this gift lives on through his writings. His endless tinkering and innovation taught me the value of acquiring diverse skills and implementing novel solutions inside the lab and out. His canon of hobbies, which grew till the very end, served as a lesson in the richness of life—a reminder that one need not be restrictively invested in one pursuit to achieve success. But most of all, it was David's kindness, humor, and warmth that I am thankful for. He was and will always be an inspiration. I will miss him dearly.