Vernon B. Mountcastle, the first person to understand and describe how the cells in the higher regions of the brain are organized and who was once dubbed “the Jacques Cousteau of the cortex,” died Sunday at his home in Baltimore. He was 96.

A neurosurgeon by training, Mountcastle switched to physiology research shortly after serving in World War II and spent his entire career at Johns Hopkins University, which announced the death. The cause was complications from the flu, according to the university.

Widely considered the father of neuroscience, Mountcastle received nearly every major award in science, including the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, the National Medal of Science and the National Academy of Sciences Award in Neuroscience. Only the Nobel Prize eluded Mountcastle, who was the first president of the Society for Neuroscience, the author of many textbooks and the editor of the Journal of Neurophysiology.

The citation on the Lasker award, which U.S. scientists refer to as the “American Nobel,” called Mountcastle “the intellectual progenitor of his field.” His understanding of the brain set the standard for all future neuroscience research.

Building on Mountcastle’s work, David H. Hubel and Torsten N. Wiesel, who both worked closely with the Hopkins scientist early in their careers, shared the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (with Roger W. Sperry) for their discovery of how neurons in the retina assemble information about the visual world.

Another former student, Robert LaMotte, who became a professor of anesthesiology and neurobiology at Yale University, referred to his mentor as the “Jacques Cousteau of the cortex.”

Mountcastle never forgot the eureka moment in 1955 that launched his ascendancy in the field. His discovery of how neurons in the upper cortex are organized into columns had everything to do with how he was recording test results one day on a yellow piece of paper – vertically and in list form.

Suddenly the physiologist saw in front of him a visual metaphor for how cells are layered in the brain, with skin cells stacked on top of skin cells, motor cells on top of motor cells, and so on. At the time, this contradicted the accepted science of the day, that brain cells were organized in layers by function.

Mountcastle’s theory was so controversial that when the paper describing the results of the experiment came out in 1957, he was the sole author. Two other researchers declined to have their names attached to the article lest it hurt their careers, he once wrote.

The late brain researcher Steve Hsiao, a former student of Mountcastle’s, once said he considered himself one of Mountcastle’s scientific grandchildren and that whenever he met a new class of students, he would hand them Mountcastle’s 1957 article from the Journal of Neurophysiology and say, “Read this. Everything comes from this paper.”


Vernon Benjamin Mountcastle was born in Shelbyville, Kentucky, on July 15, 1918, and was the middle of five children. He was 3 when his family moved to Roanoke, Virginia. His mother, a former teacher, taught him to read by age 4 and, when he started in the public school system, he was immediately promoted two grades.

He graduated from high school at 16 and lived at home while commuting to nearby Roanoke College. Though his mother tried to dissuade him from going to medical school at Johns Hopkins “with all those Yankees” – many in his family had served the Confederacy during the Civil War – Mountcastle wanted to be a neurosurgeon.

He graduated from Roanoke College in 1938 and received a medical degree from Johns Hopkins in 1942. Until Mountcastle’s generation, no one in his family had received a college education. His father was a partner in a railroad construction company.

Mountcastle served in the Navy during World War II and took part in the Anzio and Normandy invasions as a battlefield surgeon. A month after the end of the war, he married a hometown girl, Nancy Pierpont, and a year later was discharged from the military.

Still intent on being a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins, Mountcastle was told he’d have to wait a year for a slot to open. Was he willing to work in a physiology lab until then? Mountcastle eagerly agreed, and that single decision set him on his life’s course.

“I found no greater thrill in life than to make an original discovery, no matter how small,” he once said.

He taught himself neurophysiology by repeating classical experiments.

His habit in life was to go to work early, come home for dinner and to visit with his wife and three children, then go back to the lab and work until midnight – or later.”