Professor David Hubel: Nobel laureate who uncovered the secrets of visual perception

 

David Hubel was 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. Starting in the late 1950s, 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 the Swedish neurophysiologist Torsten Wiesel, he discovered how nerve cells – neurons – analyse the light rays that hit our retinas, bit by bit, to assemble the detailedimages that we perceive as our external world. Over 25 years, the pair found that the cortex is arranged in vertical columns of cells, each module devoted to process a different constituent of the seen world: form, contour, colour, movement and three-dimensionality.

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

When they began studying the visual system, little was known about the functional organisation of the cerebral cortex, and scientists had only recently begun recording electrical impulses from that 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, Hubel and 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 few 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 their 2004 memoir, Brain and Visual Perception: The Story of a 25-Year Collaboration, they wrote that "our room must have seemed like a circus, complete with a tent and exotic animals."

It was a shadow created when Hubel and Wiesel were rearranging their equipment – a faint line that swept across the projector screen in one specific orientation – that made a cat's neuron fire. It was a serendipitous first step in a career-long journey of understanding the visual system; Hubel recalled that they studied this first cat neuron for nine hours. 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."

Other lines of Hubel and Wiesel's work led to the discovery that visual cells begin developing immediately after birth and degenerate quickly if they aren't used. That finding led to a change in the established protocol of delaying operations to correct visual impairments in children.

He was born in 1926 in Ontario to American parents and raised in Montreal. His father was a chemical engineer, and the Hubel developed an interest in science as a child. He used his chemistry set to fire toy cannons, built radios and sent off hydrogen balloons into the Canadian countryside with attached notes, one of which, he recalled, "brought an answer, after many months, in French, from a farmer's daughter 100 miles away."

At McGill University in Montreal he graduated with honours in mathematics and physics in 1947. Though accepted to graduate school for physics, he applied to McGill's medical school on a whim. He recalled in the memoir: "to my horror I was accepted there, too."

He enrolled having taken only one biology class, a summer course on invertebrate zoology and botany, and graduated in 1951. During his medical internship he met his future wife, Ruth Izzard, at the university choral society, where they sang together.

After serving in the Army Hubel joined Johns Hopkins to continue research with Vernon Mountcastle, one of the leading neurophysiologists of the era. Mountcastle's lab was undergoing a six-month-long renovation andand Stephen Kuffler, a neurophysiologist who studied vision, invited him to team up with Wiesel, who had just arrived from Sweden. The partnership that was slated for half a year lasted for 25.

Once, Hubel recalled, Mountcastle asked how many visual cells the men had studied – he had just published a paper compiling observations of some 600 neurons. "To us, that was an astronomical number," Hubel wrote. He answered that they were studying cells No 3,006, 3,007 and 3,008. "In order to catapult ourselves into a league that came close to Vernon's we had begun our series of cells with No 3000. But we did not tell Vernon."

Hubel and Wiesel moved with the Kuffler team to Harvard Medical School in 1959, where they formed the core of Harvard's neurobiology department, the first of its kind in the US. There, Hubel continued research and lecturing for the next four decades. His favourite course was his seminar for first-year undergraduates, which he taught for more than a decade, even after he officially retired. Each year, he would accept a dozen Harvard freshmen into his lab, leading them through dissections of sheep brains, practising surgical sutures on pieces of scrap leather and teaching them how to weld and build their own simple electronic gadgets.

Outside academia, Hubel, who died of kidney failure, learned Japanese and French and studied astronomy. He was also a pianist and flautist. His interest in photography led to a friendship with Edwin Land, a co-founder of Polaroid.

Alyssa A Botelho, Washington Post

David Hunter Hubel, neuroscientist: born Windsor, Ontario 27 February 1926; married 1953 Ruth Izzard (died 2013; three sons); Nobel Prize 1981; died Lincoln, Massachusetts 22 September 2013.

News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Sport
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
football
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
i100
Sport
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
boxing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Drama Teacher - Hull and Grimsby

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: The JobRandstad are currently in need of ...

Reception Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is the UK mark...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant We are curr...

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments