Hopkins professor to get 'Royal' treatment today Mountcastle will join group that inducted Newton and Darwin

June 06, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Fifty-two years ago today, Dr. Vernon B. Mountcastle was a military surgeon on a ship just off the French coast, tending to soldiers who had been wounded storming Utah Beach on D-Day.

Today, Mountcastle, a Johns Hopkins University professor emeritus of neuroscience who has worked to unravel the mysteries of the brain, is back in Europe to be admitted to Britain's prestigious Royal Society.

The independent scientific academy was founded in 1660, granted a charter by Charles II in 1662 and sustained for centuries by the motto "Nullius in verba," which can be translated as "Take nobody's word for it."

During today's induction ceremony for 40 British fellows and six foreign members, Mountcastle, the lone American inductee this year, will inscribe his name in a book of honor that includes Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

Previously, the only Hopkins faculty member admitted to the society was William Osler, one of the legendary "Four Doctors" who were founding Hopkins faculty members in 1889. But he joined after leaving Hopkins.

"This is quite an honor," Mountcastle says. "It's a recognition of what you've done by distinguished scientists in another culture and another country."

Mountcastle has spent more than 40 years studying the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain involved in functions such as movement, memory, learning and perception. During the 1950s, Mountcastle discovered that the cortex is organized in vertical columns of nerve cells.

"The cortex is probably the most complex functioning organ in the universe," he says,

Mountcastle, a soft-spoken, silver-haired 77-year-old, grew up in Virginia, attended Roanoke College and arrived in Baltimore as a Hopkins medical student in 1938. Except for three years of World War II service in the Navy, Mountcastle has remained rooted in the city and at the institution he grew to love. He and his wife of 50 years, Nancy, have two children and six grandchildren.

At Hopkins, Mountcastle rose to become the director of the department of physiology in 1964. Later, he became director of the Philip Bard Laboratories of Neurophysiology.

"The popular conception of what a career in science is has become somewhat distorted," he says. "Lots of people think it's competition to get jobs and grants. It's really competition to make a discovery. When you make it, it's yours for a day or so."

Mountcastle is accustomed to receiving awards and honors. At Hopkins, officials have named an auditorium and a lecture series for him. In 1983, he received the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award. And in 1986, President Ronald Reagan presented him with the National Medal of Science, the government's highest scientific award.

"Besides all his science, he is one of the better tennis players of his age around, and he goes riding on his horse every morning at 6 o'clock," says Dr. Guy McKhann, director of the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute.

A decade ago, Mountcastle said, "The brain remains the most interesting object in the universe, and we're still in the very early stages of trying to understand it."

Now, he says, neuroscience "is just reaching a plateau. There is going to be an explosion of knowledge over the next 50 years. It sure would be nice to be 29 again."

Pub Date: 6/06/96

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