David Hubel: The Person

By: Howard Akler

In 2009, almost 30 years after he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology, David Hubel looked back on his legendary career. “If I’m honest with myself,” he said, “certainly my main motivation all along has been curiosity.” Indeed, his scientific inquiries began well before he ever set foot in a lab. As a teenager in 1930s Montreal, he was able to go downtown and buy bottles of concentrated sulphuric acid and nitric acid. One day, he played around with a mixture of potassium chlorate and sugar and set off an unexpected explosion in the comfortable neighbourhood of Outremont. 

Portrait of David H. Hubel. Courtesy of Carl A. Hubel.

Interest in science came naturally to young David. His paternal grandfather was a pharmacist who invented a process to mass produce gelatin capsules. His father was a chemical engineer who moved his family first from Detroit to Windsor, Ont., where David was born in 1926, and then to Montreal in 1928. All of David’s formal education would be in that city. After completing his degree in physics and mathematics at McGill University in 1947, he applied to medical school — without ever have taken a single biology course. “Rather to my horror,” he wrote, with typical sardonic wit, “I was accepted.” 

His lack of textbook knowledge was evident; he struggled to remember all the muscles in the human body. He did, however, spend his summers at the world-renowned Montreal Neurological Institute, and grew fascinated with the workings of the nervous system. After receiving his medical degree in 1951, Hubel spent another three years studying neurology, and then left for a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Due to his dual citizenship, Hubel was drafted almost immediately and assigned to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Neuropsychiatry Division, in Washington. It was there, at age 29, that he first began his research into the visual cortex.

Hubel returned to Johns Hopkins in 1958, joining the lab of Steven Kuffler. Considered the “father of modern neuroscience,” he was also known for his easygoing manner. Years later, Hubel would recall his first day at the lab:

“Steve, at his desk, rotated around on his chair and said ‘Hi, David! Take off your coat. Hang up your hat. Do up your fly.’ His laboratory was informal! But it took me a month, given my Canadian upbringing, to force myself to call him Steve.” 

It was during this time that Hubel met another young researcher named Torsten Wiesel, a Swedish psychiatrist. They were paired up mostly due to a lack of lab space. This arrangement was only supposed to last a few months, yet they ended up working together for 25 years, forming one of the greatest collaborations in science history. “Their names became such a brand name that H&W rolled off the tongue as easily in the lab as A&W root beer did at lunch,” wrote Robert Wurtz, another neuroscientist.

In 1959, Hubel, Wiesel, and the rest of the Kuffler team moved to Boston and established the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. This would be Hubel’s academic home for the rest of his career. He was active at the institution well past his official retirement, teaching an undergraduate class only months before his death in 2013.

David Hubel and TorstenWiesel celebrating Nobel Prize win. Courtesy of Rockefeller University.

David Hubel will always be remembered for his scientific successes, but he was very accomplished outside the lab, too. A lifelong musician, he met his future wife Ruth Izzard during choir rehearsal at McGill; they had three sons. He played the piano and oboe. He kept a flute at his office. He was an amateur astronomer, a skier, a weaver of blankets and rugs, and he loved to learn new languages. He read novels in French. He once gave a lecture in Japanese. He once wryly assessed the sheer number of his hobbies: “I make up for the time these interests consume by reading as little as possible in my field of neurophysiology.”