The 'Jacques Cousteau' of the cortex

February 15, 2015

Vernon Benjamin Mountcastle, MD-recipient of the Lasker Award and the National Medal of Science-was the first person to understand how the cells in the higher regions of the brain are organized, earning him the nickname of "the Jacques Cousteau of the [cerebral] cortex." He was the first president of the Society for Neuroscience and editor of the Journal of Neurophysiology.

One of my medical school professors died recently at the age of 96. Vernon Benjamin Mountcastle, MD-recipient of the Lasker Award and the National Medal of Science-was the first person to understand how the cells in the higher regions of the brain are organized, earning him the nickname of "the Jacques Cousteau of the [cerebral] cortex." He was the first president of the Society for Neuroscience and editor of the Journal of Neurophysiology.

 

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Dr. Mountcastle was born in Shelbyville, KY, on July 15, 1918. His mother, a former teacher, taught him to read by age 4. After attending Roanoke College, Salem, VA, he left for Baltimore with the goal of becoming a neurosurgeon. The Washington Post reports that his mother tried to dissuade him from going to medical school at Johns Hopkins “with all those Yankees,” as many in his family had served the Confederacy during the Civil War.

He received a medical degree from Johns Hopkins in 1942, then served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and took part in the Anzio and Normandy invasions as a battlefield surgeon. At war’s end, he returned to Baltimore to train as a neurosurgeon, but needed to wait a year for a residency slot to open. He agreed to spend the year working in a physiology lab, a fateful decision that changed his career trajectory.

NEXT: How brain cells organized

 

The accepted dogma in 1955 was that neurons in the brain were organized by layers. But that year, by carefully recording signals from cells in the cortex, Dr. Mountcastle realized that the cells were organized in columns. He published this observation in a paper as sole author, with two of his colleagues declining to have their names attached to the article, lest it hurt their careers.

 

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Presumably, it was not a great leap for a man with the courage to serve as a battlefield surgeon at Normandy to be brave enough to stand by the unanticipated data he had carefully generated in his laboratory. This courage was rewarded with his recognition years later by the Lasker Foundation as "the intellectual progenitor of his field."

Of direct relevance to us ophthalmologists, David H. Hubel, MD, and Torsten N. Wiesel, MD-who both worked closely with Dr. Mountcastle early in their careers-shared the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of how neurons in the retina assemble information.

After retiring from lab work in 1990, Dr. Mountcastle continued to write and give talks. In his ninth decade of life, he declared that his goal was “to enjoy to the fullest the sunny uplands of old age. Above all, to obey the 11th commandment: Thou shalt not whimper as the darkness falls.”

NEXT: Lessons learned

 

I met Dr. Mountcastle while a medical student, when he personally taught us neurophysiology. A former classmate and I recently reminisced about his demand that we students express ourselves clearly when asking a question of our professor or giving an answer to one of his questions.

"Use the English language as a sharp tool," he routinely admonished.

To me, to be called "the Jacques Cousteau” of something seems an extraordinary recognition. Because so much has been studied about ophthalmology already, it is probably not realistic that there will be a "Jacques Cousteau of the eye” in my lifetime. So instead, because I grew up in a house on the beach at the Jersey shore, my aspiration would be to be known as "the Jacques Cousteau of the ocean.”

 

Reference

Nutt AE. Vernon Mountcastle, neuroscientist dubbed ‘the Jacques Cousteau of the cortex,’ dies. The Washington Post. Jan. 14, 2015. http://wapo.st/1ATy96h