Vernon Mountcastle, 'father of neuroscience' and longtime member of Johns Hopkins faculty, dies at 96

Longtime JHU faculty member, 'father of neuroscience' made breakthrough discovery that revolutionized our understanding of how the brain is built

Vernon Mountcastle, one of Johns Hopkins Medicine's giants of the 20th century, died peacefully at his North Baltimore home on Sunday, with Nancy, his wife of seven decades, and family at his bedside. He was 96.

Vernon Mountcastle

Image caption: Vernon Mountcastle

Mountcastle was universally acknowledged as the "father of neuroscience" and served Johns Hopkins with extraordinary dedication for nearly 65 years.

A 1942 graduate of the School of Medicine and a member of the faculty since 1948, Mountcastle served as director of the Department of Physiology and head of the Philip Bard Laboratories of Neurophysiology at Johns Hopkins from 1964 to 1980. He later became one of the founding members of Johns Hopkins' Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute, where he continued to work until his retirement at 87.

Colleagues remember his dedication to the professional development of neuroscientists, fiercely focused work ethic, and devotion to collaborative research.

Also see: Mind/Brain's Mountcastle wins NAS award for lifetime of groundbreaking work (Gazette, April 1998)

Mountcastle once was dubbed the "Jacques Cousteau of the cortex" for his revolutionary research delving into the unknown depths of the brain and establishing the basis for modern neuroscience.

In 1957, he made the breakthrough discovery that revolutionized the concept of how the brain is built. He found that the cells of the cerebral cortex are organized in vertical columns, extending from the surface of the brain down through six layers of the cortex, each column processing a specific kind of information.

Two decades later, Mountcastle launched what he considered even more important research on the parietal lobe of the cortex, the region involved in such higher functions as perceiving sensory information and physically reacting to it. Mountcastle's work earned him the 1983 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award.

Also see: The Brain Voyager (Hopkins Medicine, Winter 2007)

In addition to the Lasker, he received nearly every major scientific award, including the National Medal of Science and the National Academy of Sciences Award in Neurosciences. He was the first president of the Society for Neuroscience, editor of the Journal of Neurophysiology, and author of landmark textbooks.

Mountcastle received eight honorary degrees, the most recent being a doctorate of humane letters from The Johns Hopkins University in 2013.

Said Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels: "Over the course of a professional career spent—to our great delight—entirely within the Johns Hopkins family, Vernon sprinkled his stardust over many once-disparate parts of this institution, pulling our community closer, and standing as the exemplar of what we now call 'one university.'"

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