Torsten Nils Wiesel shared one of the two 1981 Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine with David Hubel for their studies of how visual information is transmitted to and processed in the visual cortex of the brain. The other award was given to Roger Sperry for his work on brain function.
Wiesel was born in Uppsala, Sweden in 1924, the youngest of five children and was raised in a mental institution near Stockholm where his father was chief psychiatrist. For most of his youth, Wiesel admits he was a lazy student, more interested in sport than academic learning, but he became interested in psychiatry and the nervous system.
Wiesel received his medical degree from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm in 1954, after which he taught in the institute’s department of physiology and worked in the child psychiatry unit of the Karolinska Hospital. He began a fellowship in ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University Medical School in 1955 and became an assistant professor there in 1958. The following year he became an instructor in pharmacology at Harvard Medical School, beginning a 24-year career with the university. He became a professor in the new department of neurobiology in 1968 and its chairman in 1971. David Hubbel joined the laboratory in 1968 and teamed with Wiesel. They used cats and monkeys as their subjects in the investigations that identified specialized functions of individual cells in the brain’s visual cortex and mapped the functional architecture of cells in the visual cortex. They also studied the development of the visual cortex and the role of innate and experiential factors. This research has had important clinical implications, including a more effective treatment of congenital cataracts.
In 1983, Wiesel moved to The Rockefeller University as a Vincent and Brooke Astor Professor and as head of the Laboratory of Neurobiology, establishing a new neurobiology laboratory, and working with Charles Gilbert, also from Harvard, on the circuitry of primary visual cortex. In 1991 Wiesel became president of Rockefeller University. During his term lasting until 1998, he was instrumental in the recruitment of 16 new faculty members, the establishment of six interdisciplinary research centres and the formation of the collaborative relationship between the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center and Rockefeller University.
Wiesel has also been very active as a global human rights advocate. He is a founding member of the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies. He served for 10 years as chair of the committee on human rights of the National Academy of Sciences. He is currently on the board of the Hospital for Special Surgery, the Pew Charitable Trust’s global environmental committee and on the Population Council. In addition, Wiesel serves on the scientific review committees of the Merck and Steinbach Foundations.
Wiesel has retained his Swedish nationality. He has been married four times: to Teeri Stenhammar (1956–70), Ann Yee (1973–81), with whom he has a daughter, to Jean Stein and to his current wife Lizette Mususa Wiesel. Since 1998 Wiesel has turned his attention to international science advocacy. In 2000, he became secretary general of the Human Frontier Science Program, established to support international, innovative and interdisciplinary basic research in the life sciences. He was chairman of the Board of Governors of the New York Academy of Sciences from 2000 to 2006. He is a founding member of the Israeli-Palestinian Science Organization, a non-profit alliance established in 2004 to support collaborative research between scientists in Israel and Palestine. Wiesel currently serves on the scientific advisory boards of research institutes in Japan, China, India, Brazil and Italy.
This text and the picture of the Nobel Laureate were taken from the book: "NOBELS Nobel Laureates photographed by Peter Badge" (WILEY-VCH, 2008).
By Volker Steger
Torsten Wiesel comes prepared, he has seen an earlier incarnation of the „Sketches of Science“. He sits down and starts a very light, beautiful sketch of neurons interacting in the visual cortex.
„Look“, he says,“the mechanism is very simple. But you got to find it!“