Torsten N. Wiesel


Torsten N. Wiesel

I was born in Uppsala Sweden in 1924, the youngest of five children. My father, Fritz S. Wiesel, was chief psychiatrist and head of Beckomberga Hospital, a mental institution located on the outskirts of Stockholm. We were brought up by my mother, Anna-Lisa (b. Bentzer), at the hospital and were sent by bus to Whitlockska Samskolan, a coeducational private school in the city. I was a rather lazy, mischievous student, interested mainly in sports. My election as president of the high school’s athletic association was my only memorable achievement during that period. Suddenly, at the age of 17, I became a serious student and I did reasonably well as a medical student. My curiosity about the workings of the nervous system was stimulated by the lectures of Carl Gustaf Bernhard and Rudolf Skoglund, my professors in neurophysiology. Because of my background I was also interested in psychiatry, and I spent one year while I was a medical student working with patients in different mental hospitals.

When my studies were completed I returned to Professor Bernhards’s laboratory at the Karolinska Institute in 1954 to do basic neurophysiological research. The following year I had the good fortune to be invited to the United States as a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Stephen Kuffler’s laboratory at the Wilmer Institute, Johns Hopkins Medical School. Dr. Kuffler had just published his now classical study of the receptive field arrangements of cat retinal ganglion cells. This was an important extension of the pioneering work of Drs. Hartline and Granit, for which they received the 1967 Nobel Prize. David Hubel joined the laboratory in 1968, and the two of us decided to explore the receptive field properties of cells in the central visual pathways. This marked the beginning of our twenty year collaboration.

In 1959 Dr. Kuffler was invited to become a professor of pharmacology at Harvard Medical School, and he brought a group of young and enthusiastic investigators with him from Johns Hopkins Medical School. The effectiveness of this group of neuroscientists in research and teaching, and the foresight of Dr. Ebert, then the Dean of the Medical School, led to the formation of the Department of Neurobiology with Stephen Kuffler as the chairman. In addition to David Hubel and myself, the original group of emigres from Johns Hopkins included Edwin Furshpan and David Potter; together with Edward Kravitz we became the original faculty of the new department. David and I now had the opportunity to continue our work in a stimulating environment. Our collaboration continued until the late seventies. In the past several years I worked with Charles Gilbert, a young investigator in the Department. In 1973 I was asked to be head of the Department of Neurobiology. Dr. Kuffler, who meant so much to all of us, continued his work as a University Professor until he died suddenly in 1980. My only regret is that he could not join David and me in the celebration of the Nobel Prize.

I was married to Teeri Stenhammar 1956-1970 and Ann Yee 1973-1981. My daughter Sara Elisabeth was born in 1975. Aside from my work my interests lie in the arts and in world affairs.

Honors and Awards
1967 A.M. (Hon.), Harvard University2005
1971 The Dr. Jules C. Stein Award, presented by the Trustees for Research to Prevent Blindness
1972 The Lewis S. Rosenstiel Prize, presented by Brandeis University
1972 Ferrier Lecture (Royal Society of London)
1975 The Freidenwald Award, presented by the Trustees of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, Inc.
1976 The Grass Lecture (Society for Neuroscience)
1977 The Karl Spencer Lashley Prize, presented by the American Philosophical Society
1978 The Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, presented by Columbia University
1979 The Dickson Prize, presented by the University of Pittsburgh
1980 The Ledlie Prize, Harvard University
1980 Society for Scholars (Johns Hopkins University)
1981 The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
1983 William D. Stubenbord Visiting Prof., Cornell Univ. Medical College, New York
1989 W.H. Helmerich III Award, The Woodlands, Texas
1996 Helen Keller Prize for Vision Research
1998 Society for Neuroscience, Presidential Award
2005 Institute of Medicine, David Rall Medal
2005 The National Medal of Science (USA)
2006 Spanish National Research Council (CSIC – Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas) Gold Medal
2007 Marshall M. Parks MD Medal of Excellence [Shared with David Hubel], Children’s Eye Foundation

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1981, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1982

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1981

Addendum, October 2008

In 1983, I became the Vincent and Brook Astor Professor at The Rockefeller University, where I established a new Laboratory of Neurobiology and continued my close collaboration with Charles Gilbert on the circuitry of primary visual cortex. In close to 20 years of collaboration, Charles and I were able to describe the specificity and dynamic nature of the long-range horizontal connections that we discovered at Harvard.

After forty years in the lab, I was asked in 1991 to become president of The Rockefeller University. Unlike a working scientist, being president for seven years provided an opportunity to interact with scientists in many different fields and broadened my scope of the natural sciences. For example, it allowed me to take the initiative to create a Center for Studies in Physics and Biology. To my surprise, I enjoyed the challenges of administration, in particular assisting in the recruitment of new talent to the university. It was a privilege to be at the helm of such a great institution and to be a part of this unique community of scholars and university staff alike.

Since leaving the presidency in 1998, I have focused my efforts on many issues that have long concerned me and have devoted myself to programs for younger scientists. In the spring of 2000, I accepted the position of Secretary General of the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP), an organization headquartered in Strasbourg that supports international and interdisciplinary collaboration between investigators in the life sciences and sponsors the training of post-doctoral students from different parts of the world.

While remaining at the Rockefeller University as director of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Center for Mind, Brain and Behavior, I continue to be an advisor to different countries and organizations, mainly helping to create opportunities for young scientists to carry out independent research, similar to what has become the established path for scientists working the United States. For over 15 years I have been involved with the Pew Charitable Trusts chairing both its Scholars Program and the Latin American Fellowship Program, which supports the training of students in the best laboratories in the U.S. Since 2002 I have co-chaired the board of governors of the Okinawa Institute of Technology (OIST), and since 2003 have chaired the advisory board of China’s National Institute of Biological Science (NIBS), in Beijing.

I continue to serve on the boards of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, the Hospital for Special Surgery, and on the advisory board of the European Brain Research Institute (EBRI). For 10 years (1994-2004), I served as chair of the Committee of Human Rights of the National Academies of Science (U.S.A.) and the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies, assisting colleagues who have been imprisoned or harassed for their peaceful opposition to the policies of their governments. I was also a founding member of the Israeli-Palestinian Science Organization (IPSO), a nongovernmental nonprofit established in 2004 to support collaborative research between scientists in Israel and Palestine to promote positive interactions between the two communities.

I also served as chair of the board of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center (1995-2001), president of the International Brain Research Organization, IBRO, (1998-2004), chair of the Board of Governors of the New York Academy of Sciences (2001-2006), and on the board of directors of the Population Council (1999-2008).

In 2007, the Torsten Wiesel Research Institute was established by the World Eye Organization at West China Hospital in Chengdu, China, to engage in basic and clinical research, especially on eye diseases most prevalent in Asia. I was married to Jean Stein from 1995 to 2007. My grandson Owen Thomas Cullen was born on July 14, 2007. In 2008 I married Lizette Mususa Reyes. We presently divide our time between Strasbourg, Stockholm and New York.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2008

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