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Looking Within

Looking Within

Nobel laureate and Academy Chairman Emeritus Torsten Wiesel maps receptive field properties within the visual cortex, etching a singular vision for his own life.

Torsten N. Wiesel

MD: Karolinska Institute, 1954
At a glance:
  • Chair, Board of Governors, Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology
  • Professor Emeritus, The Rockefeller University, New York
  • Chairman Emeritus and President's Council Member, The New York Academy of Sciences
  • Secretary General, Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) 2000–2009
  • President, The Rockefeller University (1991–1998)
  • Chair of the Board of Governors, The New York Academy of Sciences (2000–2006)
  • Chair, The Committee of Human Rights (1994–2004)
When examining the life of a Nobel laureate, what generally emerge are clear bends in the path: chance situations, meetings, and discoveries that serve as critical signposts to lead an intellectual down the road to greatness. In the same way, our brain provides a complex circuitry of form and function—chemical processes not fully understood, yet acting precisely, as stoplights do, to spark a desired action at just the right time.

Torsten Wiesel's own fascination with the inner workings of the brain led him to trace the pathways of how the mind "sees" and "perceives" the world. His research, exploring the role of receptive field properties of neurons in the visual cortex, earned him and colleague David Hubel the honor of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (an honor also shared with Roger W. Sperry, for independent research). Their research elucidated how light and patterns move from the retina and organize into neural columns within the cortex. They identified a neural hierarchy within the striate cortex, where images are processed. By blocking the vision of one eye in cats and then monkeys, these investigators also established how gaps in visual stimulation at a critical time period during infancy could lead to permanent and irreversible blindness.

When asked about his early influences, Wiesel points out the often serendipitous nature of life, much the same way a researcher might describe lab work: "It is difficult to say. You often move forward and try to find a way," he says. "Afterwards, it seems logical what you did, but the process, while you are going through it, is actually much more complex."

Wiesel, the youngest of five children, spent much of his childhood in Beckomberga Hospital, one of the largest psychiatric hospitals in Europe. His father, chief psychiatrist Fritz S. Wiesel, lived with his family on the campus of the large hospital, located on the outskirts of Stockholm, Sweden. While Wiesel went to a private school in Stockholm each day, he was also exposed, from an early age, to different types of people on the hospital campus.

Wiesel describes himself as a mischievous child and teenager who was far more interested in sports than his studies. After his parents divorced and his brother became ill, he, at age 17, suddenly took stock of his own life's direction. "All of these things worked together and made me want to understand human behavior and the mind," he says.

Despite not having a close relationship with his father, Wiesel followed in his father's footsteps, and earned a medical degree. He graduated from Karolinska Institute in Stockholm in 1954. He worked first with adults and then children in psychiatric settings for a year and a half after graduation. During that time, he realized the limiting nature of psychiatric treatments, including electro-shock therapy and insulin shock therapy. "It was before the pharmacologic revolution, you must remember," he says. "And I became frustrated that there was so little we could do," Wiesel recalls.


Wiesel turned his efforts to the lab, where he would spend the next 40 years. He returned to his early college mentor, Carl Gustaf Bernhard, a professor of neuroscience at Karolinska Institute, and began doing basic neurophysiologic research.

At that point, a chance inquiry would change Wiesel's future path. Stephen Kuffler, now referred to as "the Father of Modern Neuroscience," asked Bernhard for a promising post-doctorate fellow to work with him at the Wilmer Institute at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, MD. When he accepted the position, Wiesel was, first and foremost, looking forward to exploring the culture of the United States. But he became immediately intrigued when he read over Kuffler's research papers of the receptive field arrangements of cat retinal ganglion cells—research that would eventually spur his own discoveries.

Wiesel never worked in the lab with Kuffler, but he credits the researcher for fueling his career in those early days of his ophthalmology lab fellowship. "Stephen had an informal style. He hated pomposity and could be very critical of facts. But you never felt threatened or not accepted. His style of mentoring certainly affected my way of being," Wiesel recalls. The two would take long walks and discuss science and life in general, he says.

Kuffler had a hands-off approach. He left his postdocs, Wiesel and David Hubel, another neurobiologist, alone to carry out and explore their findings. Using Kuffler's research on the retina as a start, the young investigators studied central vision and pinned down its neural beginnings.

When Kuffler was offered a position at the Department of Pharmacology at Harvard Medical School in 1959, he brought four promising investigators, including Wiesel and Hubel, with him. After a few years, these young investigators became part of the faculty of a new Department of Neurobiology, which Kuffler founded. "Neuroscience in those days was pretty much rooted in anatomy and physiology," Wiesel recalls. But Kuffler's interests in neurochemistry changed that. Kuffler brought chemists and physiologists together to pursue answers to the brain's illusive questions—and Harvard's neurobiology department would soon come to be considered one of the most esteemed in the country.

Wiesel, ironically, never completed his PhD. "It never really occurred to me until people started to ask where I got my PhD [that this was strange]," he recalls. "In some ways, it saved me some time so I could get right to my research. It's interesting; a formal education is very important, but, at the same time, it is possible to function [without it]. If someone is doing well in research, formalities are less important sometimes."


At the age of 68, an age when most think of retiring, Wiesel assumed the role of president at The Rockefeller University, a New York-based institution known for allowing independent and self-directed laboratory study. When he became president in 1991, the university was in financial trouble and needed re-direction. Wiesel quickly built up morale and financial backing. "There is nothing like doing an experiment, but to be part of rebuilding an institution was a special challenge," he says.

During his 7-year tenure as president, Wiesel took pride in recruiting 16 bright and forward-thinking faculty members. He also established six interdisciplinary research centers, including the Center for Studies in Physics and Biology. In addition, he formed the University's collaborative relationship with the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, of which he was chairman.

Wiesel applied these same leadership skills to the New York Academy of Sciences during a difficult time in its history. He was the Chair of the Board of Governors when the Academy didn't have the finances to support programming—which led to some difficult decisions. To ensure long-term viability, the organization cut programs and staff members. As a result, several board members resigned, including the president at the time. "I was chairman of the board and for a while also carried out the president's duties," recalls Wiesel.

Wiesel also suggested delaying the sale of the Academy's office building, since the real estate was severely undervalued at the time. This decision led to about an extra $10 million in revenue for the Academy when the building was sold a few years later.The key to Wiesel's administrative success at the Academy came, in part, from his ability to shift the Academy's mission back to scientific discovery and conversation, instead of political activism. "Think-tanks serve an important purpose, but they belong in Washington. We returned to our roots to become part of the scientific community."


In recent years, Wiesel's passion for removing roadblocks to scientific discovery has only grown. In 2000, Wiesel became involved with the Human Frontier Science Program, an organization headquartered in Strasbourg, France, that stresses international and interdisciplinary collaboration, with its focus on life sciences. Wiesel served as secretary general for 9 years and helped to introduce a grant program for young investigators, a career development award for post-doctoral fellows who go back to their home countries, and a post-doctoral program for physicists and chemists who want to study biology.

For 10 years, up until 2004, Wiesel also served as the chair of the Committee of Human Rights, sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. The committee writes appeals on behalf of unjustly imprisoned scientists, engineers, and health professionals, as well as personal letters of encouragement.

While he clearly is an advocate for human rights, Wiesel takes issue with the designation of "activist," despite serving on several activist-oriented boards, including the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. His focus has been, and will always be, science, he says.

"I do think it's important to keep science and politics separate," Wiesel says, "But as a member of society, you have a responsibility to ensure that laws and justice are respected. I've always believed when people do something wrong, we have a responsibility to tell them and to advocate for justice."

Wiesel is also interested in breaking down boundaries. He chairs the Board of Governors of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST), an international graduate university offering a 5-year PhD program in science, which is supported by the Japanese government. "One important feature is that there are no departments in physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, computer science, or engineering, so the scientists and the students are free to explore." says Wiesel.

"We have a mixture of scientists with different disciplines and different cultures, so it's a way of trying to create a kind of 'university of the future'." The future, and progress, of science is a concept Wiesel embraces—viewing life as a welcome series of challenges and discoveries.

Marci A. Landsmann is a medical writer in Philadelphia.

Photo credit: Mukha