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Nobel laureate David Hubel, who taught at Harvard, dies at 87

Dr. David Hubel in 1981, the year he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, with his wife Ruth Hubel and son Eric Hubel. Ted Dully/Globe Staff, file/Globe Staff

David H. Hubel, a Nobel-winning Harvard scientist who helped revolutionize understanding of the brain, died Sunday at the age of 87, his family said.

Hubel, who lived most recently in Newton, was part of a trio of neurological researchers who won the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their research on human vision. He died of kidney failure, his son said.

Along with fellow Harvard researcher Torsten Wiesel and California Institute of Technology psychobiologist Roger Sperry, Hubel received the Nobel honor for their contribution to science’s understanding of how brain cells pass along visual information to create an image.


“There has been a myth that the brain cannot understand itself, the brain or the mind. It is compared to a man trying to lift himself by his own bootstraps” Hubel told the Globe in 1981. “We feel this is nonsense, the brain can be studied just like the kidney can.”

Hubel, who was born in Ontario and grew up in Montreal, received his medical degree from McGill University Faculty of Medicine before getting his start in medical research as a draftee in the US Army, his family said.

In 1954, Hubel joined the faculty at the Harvard Medical School after a brief stint at a Johns Hopkins lab. That is when he began working with co-laureate Wiesel, Hubel’s family said.

He spent the remainder of his career researching and teaching at Harvard.

Hubel’s son Paul said his father loved to teach -- especially the freshmen in his seminar class -- and continued to do so late in his life, even as he battled cancer and his kidneys began to fail. Although he officially retired several years ago, he continued to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of doctors and researchers while teaching as a professor emeritus, the younger Hubel said.


Hubel was very concerned with ensuring the proliferation of neuroscience education, Paul Hubel said. David Hubel and his late wife Ruth established research scholarships at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Wellesley College, where he occasionally lectured, and the University of Windsor in Ontario, which provided funds for students to take on neuroscience summer internships, his family said.

Surviving members of Hubel’s family are launching a similar undergraduate neuroscience research scholarship in his name to honor his legacy and commitment to education.

Hubel leaves three sons and four grandchildren. Paul Hubel said his father was set apart by his uncanny ability to balance his work and family life.

“He would do experiments until five in the morning weekly but every other night he would be home for dinner with the family,” Paul Hubel recalled.

Nicholas Jacques can be reached at nicholas.jacques@globe.com.