Bruce S. McEwen

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Bruce S. McEwen of Harpswell and Hillsborough, N.J. died on Jan. 2. 2020 at age 81 after a brief illness. Although Maine neighbors knew him for his wide circle of friends, his skills as a painter, and the love of schnauzers that he and his wife Karen shared, Bruce was a world-renowned neuroscientist whose career at Rockefeller University in New York spanned more than 50 years.

His work transformed our understanding of how the brain changes throughout life. Best known for his studies on how stress hormones reshape neural circuits and brain structures, Bruce’s work has profound implications for public health, impacting conditions from normal aging to neurodegenerative disease, depression, and PTSD.

When he began his career in the 1960s, most scientists believed that the brain ceases to change when it becomes fully developed, at which point its basic architecture becomes stable. But Bruce, along with a few other scientists, recognized that the brain is in fact malleable and can be modified by circulating hormones, a concept with important ramifications for both neuroscience and medicine.

In 1968, Bruce and his colleagues made the landmark discovery that the brain’s hippocampus region is influenced by stress hormones like cortisol—the first of many subsequent observations showing that circulating hormones can enter the brain to change gene expression and ultimately alter basic neurological functions like mood, decision making, and memory.

“Bruce was a giant in the field of neuroendocrinology,” says neuroscientist Leslie Vosshall, a Rockefeller colleague. “He was a world leader in studying the impact of stress hormones on the brain and led by example to show that great scientists can also be humble, gentle, and generous human beings.”

Bruce was also a pioneer in understanding how stress affects overall health. He coined the concept of allostatic load, which explains how chronic stress may impact the brain and the body to cause disease. In recent years, much of his energy were devoted to understanding how people’s lifestyle and experiences—including nutrition, physical activity, exposure to early-life trauma, and many other factors—cause epigenetic changes in the brain, altering gene expression and rewiring neuronal connections.

“His work became increasingly more expansive and integrative—in later years he called himself a ‘molecular sociologist.’ He made the most seminal findings regarding how steroid hormones affect the brain,” says Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University who started his career as a graduate student in Bruce’s lab. Bruce connected what he discovered with the need to take care of those vulnerable in our society, those who bear the long-term effects of chronic stress and the inflammatory cascade it provokes. He interacted with leading experts in child health, PTSD, addiction, diabetes, depression, obesity, and Alzheimer’s.

Born in 1938 in Fort Collins, Colo., Bruce grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich. He attended Oberlin College in Ohio, where he majored in Chemistry, and received his graduate degree in 1964 from Rockefeller. After a short postdoc, Bruce returned to join the Rockefeller faculty in 1966, was promoted to professor and head of laboratory in 1981 and named the Alfred E. Mirsky Professor in 1999.

At Rockefeller and beyond, Bruce was known both for his pioneering research and for his strong commitment to education and mentoring. He trained several generations of neuroscientists. He also was deeply committed to Rockefeller’s science outreach program and regularly gave lectures in the Parents and Science series.

Bruce’s scientific legacy has left a lasting imprint both within and outside of academia. His work has been cited more than 130,000 times in the world’s research literature, and he has frequently been quoted on national newscasts and in the lay press. In addition, Bruce authored several lay-language publications about the influence of experience and stress on health, including the 2002 book The End of Stress as We Know It.

Bruce and Karen visited Harpswell regularly before establishing a second home on Quahog Bay over 20 years ago.

Bruce is survived by his wife, Karen Bulloch; his brother, Craig McEwen, a professor emeritus at Bowdoin and now of Cape Elizabeth; his former wife, Nancy McEwen of Englewood, N.J. and their two daughters, Carolyn McEwen of Los Angeles and Sarah McEwen Kelly of Westport, Conn.; stepchildren, Kimberly McGrath of Hillsborough N.J. and Scott Muryasz of Canton, Conn.; eight grandchildren; and two nephews.

Details regarding a memorial service will be announced as arrangements are made.

In lieu of flowers, McEwen’s family asks that donations be made to the newly established Bruce S. McEwen Fund at Rockefeller, which will support causes that Bruce championed such as the university’s science outreach program and its Parents & Science initiative