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    The 'Jacques Cousteau' of the cortex

    Dr. Mountcastle first to understand how brain cells are organized

    One of my medical school professors died recently at the age of 96. Vernon Benjamin Mountcastle, MD—recipient of the Lasker Award and the National Medal of Science—was the first person to understand how the cells in the higher regions of the brain are organized, earning him the nickname of "the Jacques Cousteau of the [cerebral] cortex." He was the first president of the Society for Neuroscience and editor of the Journal of Neurophysiology.


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    Dr. Mountcastle was born in Shelbyville, KY, on July 15, 1918. His mother, a former teacher, taught him to read by age 4. After attending Roanoke College, Salem, VA, he left for Baltimore with the goal of becoming a neurosurgeon. The Washington Post reports that his mother tried to dissuade him from going to medical school at Johns Hopkins “with all those Yankees,” as many in his family had served the Confederacy during the Civil War.

    He received a medical degree from Johns Hopkins in 1942, then served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and took part in the Anzio and Normandy invasions as a battlefield surgeon. At war’s end, he returned to Baltimore to train as a neurosurgeon, but needed to wait a year for a residency slot to open. He agreed to spend the year working in a physiology lab, a fateful decision that changed his career trajectory.

    NEXT: How brain cells organized

    Peter J. McDonnell, MD
    He is director of The Wilmer Eye Institute, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of ...

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