David Hubel: The Legacy

By: Howard Akler

David Hubel had vision. He and Torsten Wiesel saw their science as free from theory. They began their experiments without pre-conceptions. Their approach was to stimulate visual cells and record what they found. They may have kept their method simple, but it turns out that their findings have been manifold. Their discovery of visual processing has provided a model for our understanding of other sensory systems, such as hearing or language acquisition. Modern studies in neuroscience, ophthalmology, and psychology have shown that the brain develops through interaction between its own internal hardwiring and early exterior experience. Their body of work, said Eric Kandel, another Nobel winner, “stands as one of the great biological achievements of the 20th century.”

Hubel himself also provided a model for neuroscientists of the 21st century. His wry and irreverent sense of humour made his lab a welcoming one. He created no hierarchy. He made his own equipment and did his own experiments. And he never took credit for work done by his students. “It is the guy in the lab who did the work that made him great, and there is surely some connection between the way he daily went about doing science and how successful he was,” wrote Margaret Livingstone, one of Hubel’s former post-doctoral students and a notable neuroscientist in her own right.

Hubel’s advice to young scientists was to “join a lab in which the leader is doing his or her own experiments, at a bench of their own, a lab in which you’ll be able to do experiments that you thought up, using your own hands.” He taught his students how to solder, how to use power tools, how to suture skin, and how to wire up a simple circuit. Livingstone remembered thinking that many colleagues found those tasks to be tedious, but her mentor found them to be fun.

For David Hubel, science was pure pleasure.