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Oral history interview with Torsten N. Wiesel

  • 2007-May-04
  • 2007-Oct-10
Photograph of Torsten N. Wiesel

Torsten N. Wiesel was born and grew up near Stockholm, Sweden, the youngest of five children. His father was a psychiatrist at Beckomberga Hospital, a mental institution comprising 30-40 fenced acres, and the whole family lived in the compound, as did other staff members and their families. Wiesel attended a private school in Stockholm, but was more interested in soccer and orienteering than studying. When he was in his teens his parents divorced, and he decided to become a doctor. He attended medical school at Karolinska Institute and worked there for a few years before coming to the United States as a postdoc in Stephen Kuttler's lab at Johns Hopkins University. There he worked on epilepsy. One of his brothers had become schizophrenic; this, along with his frustration with the lack of insightful care for the mentally ill in the 1940's and 1950's, prompted Torsten's interest in neuroscience. Working in Kuttler's lab with Kenneth Brown, he dealt with retinal ganglion receptive fields/responses to light stimulation, using cats and monkeys as his lab animals. David Hubel arrived at Hopkins, and the two men began a very long collaboration that in 1981 garnered them the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Eventually, after moving through several departments at Harvard University, Wiesel ended up in the neurobiology department, where he ultimately became the chairman. In 1983, after Torsten had been chairman for ten years, he and Charles Gilbert, with whom he was then working, moved to Rockefeller University. There he became chairman of the faculty, and was thus asked to be president when David Baltimore resigned. Wiesel brought together again the disillusioned faculty and, with a substantial gift from David Rockefeller, recruited more good scientists. He now spends some time in Sweden, where he visits his two sisters and one brother twice a year, and in Strasbourg, where he is Secretary General of the Human Frontier Science Program. He has many professional affiliations and directorships; he has won many, many awards, and he has published much.

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