David H. Hubel Biography (1926-)


Born February 27, 1926, in Windsor, Ontario, of American parents, Elsie M. Hunter Hubel (pronounced hyü-ble) and Jesse H. Hubel, David Hunter Hubel grew up in Montreal. From his father, who was a chemical engineer, Hubel developed an interest in science, especially chemistry and electronics.

From 1932 to 1944, Hubel attended the Strathcona Academy in Outremont, Ontario. He began his college studies at McGill University in 1944. Although he received his B.S. with honors in mathematics and physics, he decided to enter McGill University Medical School in 1947--a decision which he appears to have made almost on the spur of the moment, since he had not taken any college course in biology. He also worked summers at the Montreal Neurological Institute,where he began his studies of the nervous system. He received his medical degree in 1951 and spent the next four years studying clinical neurology, firstat the Montreal Neurological Institute and then at Johns Hopkins Universityin Baltimore, Maryland.

In 1955, Hubel was drafted into the United States Army, which sent him to theNeurophysiology Division of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C. At Walter Reed, Hubel discovered a stimulating group ofphysiologists who encouraged him to do original research for the first timein his life. Determined to study sleep, he developed a device, known as a tungsten microelectrode, to record the electrical impulses of nerve cells. He used this device on cats to measure the activity of nerve cells in sleep.

During his research on sleep, Hubel became more interested in the reactions of his subjects to the firing responses recorded by the microelectrodes duringwaking states. He had placed the microelectrodes in the visual cortex area of the brain for his sleep experiments, and he began to realize that it was possible to understand how the brain operates in the visual process. In readingthe work of other scientists on this subject, Hubel discovered the researchpapers of Stephen Kuffler, who was then a leading figure in the neurophysiology of vision.

After his army service ended in 1958, Hubel went to Johns Hopkins Universitywhere he did further research on the surface of the brain, the gray matter ofthe cerebral cortex, in the laboratory of Vernon Mountcastle. But shortly afterwards he moved to the Wilmer Institute, also at Johns Hopkins, and joinedStephen Kuffler's research team. There he met Torsten Wiesel, and under the direction of Kuffler the two of them began to make discoveries about the relationship of the retina to the visual cortex as part of the general physiologyof the brain.

In 1959, Hubel and Wiesel, along with the rest of Kuffler's research team, followed Kuffler to the Harvard Medical School in Boston. By 1964, Harvard hadformed a new department of neurobiology, naming Kuffler as its chairman. Hubel became chairman of this department in 1967, and in 1968 he was named the George Packer Berry Professor of Physiology.

Much of the work done by Hubel and Wiesel, using microelectrodes and electronic equipment, centered around a section of the visual cortex in the brain known as area 17. The cells in this section of the visual cortex form several thin layers that are arranged in columns running through the cortex. Hubel andWeisel discovered that certain cells of area 17 in the brain respond to the stimulation of specific retinal cells in the eye. In particular, they found that cells in the cortex are specialized to respond to different types of stimulation. There are types of cortical cells that respond to light spots and others that respond specifically to the different angles of a tilted line. Theydiscovered that some respond only to definite directions of movement, while others respond only to definite colors.

Hubel and Wiesel's research has made the visual cortex the most mapped-out section of the brain, and it has deepened the scientific understanding of how the visual system works. In addition, their work has led to practical ophthalmological applications for the treatment of congenital cataracts, as well as a condition occurring in childhood known as strabismus, where one eye is unable to focus with the other because of a muscle imbalance. Hubeland Wiesel discovered that at birth the visual cortex begins to develop its structures from the stimulation of the newborn's retina. The development of the brain is shaped by the activity of the eye, and the sooner childhood eye disorders are corrected, therefore, the better the chances of avoiding seriousvisual impairments in the future. Before their research, the customarymedical practice had been to delay operating on these conditions, but todaydoctors recognize the importance of the early removal of cataracts and the prompt treatment of strabismus.

For their work on how the retinal image is read and interpreted by the cellsof the visual cortex, Hubel and Wiesel shared the first half of the 1981 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine. For his work on split-brain physiology, Roger W. Sperry won the second half.

Hubel has been married to Shirley Ruth Izzard Hubel since 1953, and they havethree sons.

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