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
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete tomorrow
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
News
Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167
newsSouth Korean reports suggest rumours of a coup were unfounded
Arts and Entertainment
You could be in the Glastonbury crowd next summer if you follow our tips for bagging tickets this week
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie performs during her Kiss Me Once tour
musicReview: 26 years on from her first single, the pop princess tries just a bit too hard at London's O2
News
peopleSwimmer also charged with crossing double land lines and excessive speeding
Arts and Entertainment
A new Banksy entitled 'Art Buff' has appeared in Folkestone, Kent
art
News
i100
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

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

1st Line Service Desk Analyst

£27000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client who are...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Huxley Associates are currentl...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style