It’s one of my favorite books of all time. Brain and Visual Perception is the story of a 25 year collaboration between David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, as well-known to vision specialists as tjhe collaboration between Watson and Crick is known to geneticists. It was fitting that the book telling the story of their 25 pioneering years together was published in 2006 as a 25th anniversary celebration of Hubel and Wiesel being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1981. The “or” designation makes it sound like the Committee couldn’t make up their minds, and in that year it may have been true because the prize was divided evenly between Roger Sperry for his discoveries on the cerebral hemispheres and to Hubel & Wiesel for their work on visual information processing.
When the phone rang in my office nearly nine years ago, and a voice on the other end of the line asked if she could come to visit my office and pick my brain, I had no idea at the time that the courageous woman would wind up sharing an NPR spotlight with Oliver Sacks and David Hubel. If you haven’t listened to it in a while, the NPR piece narrated by Robert Krulwich is still delightful as ever. If you’re short on time, and a faster reader than listener, take a look at the transcript.
I told Sue about the book showcasing Hubel and Wiesel, with an epilogue after one of their famous papers noting that ophthalmologists had probably over-extrapolated the significance of their research on kittens to imply that early surgery for strabismus was essential for humans to develop binocular vision. Sue visited with David Hubel, and the NPR transcript summarized his feelings after meeting with her:
“Even the Nobel Prize winner, David Hubel, he now says if you have a problem like Susan’s and your doctor says to you, sorry, there is nothing I can do for you; you should’ve come to me as a baby, after meeting Susan, he said:
Dr. David Hubel (Nobel Prize Laureate, Physiology and Medicine): I think Sue’s case makes it very clear, if an ophthalmologist or optometrist tells you this, you should find somebody else who’s more open. And she obviously did, and it’s a darn good thing that she did.”
I thought about the NPR piece again this afternoon upon receiving the news that Dr. Hubel had passed away on Sunday at the age of 87. Dr. Cathy Stern graciously shared the beautiful obituary in yesterday’s New York Times. In it, Drs. Hubel and Wiesel are described as being fond of recalling their Nobel-winning discoveries as resulting from luck. That may be true, but as the saying goes, chance favors the prepared mind.
What impact has Dr. Hubel’s admonition about finding a doctor who’s more open had on our field? We’ll delve into this more in Part 2.