A Personal History

Views from the founding members

But if we could ask Steve [Kuffler] what he thought about the current state of neuroscience he would probably respond with one of his puzzling phrases like,

'Things didn’t turn out half bad', accompanied by a twinkle in his eye.

—U.J. McMahan from Steve: Remembrances of Stephen W. Kuffler 

The Boys

Source: U.J. McMahan from Steve: Remembrances of Stephen W. Kuffler

Hubel, Wiesel, Furshpan, and Potter moved with Steve from the Wilmer to Harvard Medical School in 1959. Kravitz joined them soon thereafter. From 1959 to 1966 The group operated as the Laboratory of Neurophysiology in the Department of Pharmacology, and then, after much difficulty with a conservative university administration and faculty, they formed, with Steve as its chairman, the first Department of Neurobiology in the country… Steve affectionately referred to all the founding faculty as 'the boys'… All of Steve’s faculty were at the top of their areas of research and all were actively involved in teaching, but each was known among the student for at least one outstanding train that helped make the department an exciting place in which to work...

...Kravitz's emotional good nature and interaction helped make the department seem like a family...

“Steve Kuffler used to say ‘the good old days are now.’ He meant that in the best sense, which was don't look back with nostalgia at what used to be...The first decades of Neurobiology were unique and were an exciting time for all of us. But the progress being made today in the human genome, in our understanding of how the nervous system works, and in unraveling the mysteries of neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders dwarfs many of the accomplishments of those early years. Society too has made remarkable progress, with women and minorities now making up large portions of our student and post-doctoral populations and increasingly occupying prominent academic positions as well. The grant scene could be better of course, and there are serious challenges to academic excellence being promulgated by grant-dollar counting administrators. Such nuisances can and should be dealt with though, and I plan to continue to do so as long as I maintain my active academic career. I have learned much from my colleagues and mentors. Throughout my career I have tried to emulate Steve and run my laboratory as a "family"; to follow my colleagues Ed Furshpan and Dave Potter and maintain a commitment to excellence in teaching; to give back through service to a field that has given me so much; and to nurture and support our next generations trying to instill in them the same values that I hold to so dearly. Science was fun in the decades of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and I suspect we could keep it fun for future decades as well with some serious attention to that aspect of academic life by all of us. Overall though, the good old days are now still seems to ring true to me.”

—Ed Kravitz from The History of Neuroscience in Autobiography, Volume 4. 

...Wiesel, who worked with Hubel and later shared a Nobel Prize with him, was a sober realist with apparently infinite patience, carefully analyzing all aspects of a problem before making a decision...

"The department soon became an amazing and dynamic entity with brilliant graduate students, great postdocs from all over the world and outstanding visiting scientists. Steve provided the opportunity for us all to carry out independent work. He had the habit of making occasional informal visits to the different labs when he would chat with students and faculty giving us all a sense of being part of a family with the goal to reach for excellence in our research. Former students and fellows are now leaders in neuroscience keeping alive Kuffler’s spirit of small labs with deep commitments to individual research…The department has obviously changed over the years but still remains one of the very best in the world. I visited the department for three weeks as a Vallee Foundation Scholar in May 2010 and was cheered by the observation that the current chair is close in spirit and leadership to the founder of the department."

—Torsten Wiesel

...Furshpan and Potter, who also worked together, gave the department a social conscience, which was of no small concern to students in the 60’s and 70’s; their efforts devoted to minority recruitment had a profound effect on Harvard and the field (as did their effort toward developing new and interesting ways of teaching cellular neurophysiology)...

"There’s another fact of the department that interests me personally, [that] has to do with our involvement in acceptance of medical students who were minorities… it was something new, and it was a political struggle and that made it very interesting. I spent a lot of time there, time that I should have been spending in the lab doing science and research, on admissions and recruiting, and I got kind of devoted to that. I don’t regret that at all, it was an education for me."

—David Potter