Torsten Wiesel

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Uppsala, Sweden
Birth Sign
Uppsala, Sweden

Torsten Nils Wiesel is a Swedish neurophysiologist who won a Nobel Prize. He shared the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries about how the visual system processes information. As the youngest son of a psychiatrist who was also the head of a mental hospital, he had a natural interest in psychiatry. But later, he became very interested in how the nervous system works. So, when he got an invitation from Dr. Stephen Kuffler, a well-known neurophysiologist, he moved to the United States and became a postdoctoral fellow in his lab at Wilmer Institute, Johns Hopkins Medical School. Later, the same Institute made him an assistant professor. At Wilmer, Wiesel met David Hunter Hubel, who also wanted to become a neurophysiologist. They started looking into the cells in the central visual pathways very quickly. But not long after that, they moved to Harvard University with Kuffler and kept working there. Over time, the two scientists worked together for more than 20 years, and their work helped a lot to figure out how the visual system works. They also wrote many books together and won many awards jointly. Later, Wiesel became a professor at Rockefeller University. After a short time, he became the school’s director. After that, he also worked for many prestigious groups.

Early years and childhood

Torsten Wiesel was born on June 3, 1924, in Uppsala, Sweden. Fritz S. Wiesel, his father, was the head psychiatrist and director of Beckomberga Hospital, which is just outside of Stockholm. Anna-Lisa (Bentzer) Wiesel was the name of his mother. He was the youngest of five kids his parents had.

Torsten and his siblings grew up in the part of this hospital where Torsten’s father lived. But his mother did most of the raising. When the time came, he went to Stockholm’s Whitlockska Samskolan, a private school for both boys and girls.

At school, he was always getting into trouble and only cared about games. At the age of seventeen, he changed in some way. Later, he went to the Royal Caroline Institute, also called Karolinska Institute, to study medicine. He did well there, and in 1954 he got his degree as a doctor.

Wiesel was interested in psychiatry because of where he came from. Even though he was still in school, he worked for a year in different mental hospitals. Carl Gustaf Bernhard and Rudolf Skoglund, who taught neurophysiology at the institute, made him even more interested in how the nervous system worked.

Torsten Wiesel’s Career

After getting his M.D. in 1954, Wiesel went back to the Karolinska Institute to work in the lab of Professor Bernhard on basic research in neurophysiology. He also taught at the Institute’s psychology department and worked at the Karolinska Hospital’s child psychiatry unit at the same time.

In 1955, he moved to the U.S. at the invitation of Dr. Stephen Kuffler and worked as a postdoctoral fellow in his lab at Wilmer Institute, Johns Hopkins Medical School. Here, he started working on the visual system, which is in charge of figuring out what we see.

In 1958, Johns Hopkins Medical School made him an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physiology. In the same year, he met David Hunter Hubel, and Kuffler told the two of them to work together on how the retina and the visual cortex work together.

With that job, they started working together and stayed together for more than 20 years. Both of them thought a lot of Kuffler, so when he moved to Harvard University in 1959, they went with him. From there, Wiesel went to Harvard Medical School to teach pharmacology.

For the next 24 years, Wiesel stayed at Harvard University. In 1964, Kuffler was the first chair of the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard, which was set up by their group. In 1968, he was hired as a professor in the same department. In 1971, he became the head of that department.

Wiesel and Hubel kept working on the visual system in this area as well. In a study that started in 1959, a microelectrode was put into the primary visual cortex of a cat that had been put to sleep. Patterns of light and dark were then shown on a screen in front of the cat.

Through their experiments, they found out how the visual system builds up complex images from simple ones. They also found two kinds of cells in the primary visual cortex, which they called “simple cells” and “complex cells.”

Another big thing they did was find the ocular dominance column, which is a strip of neurons found in the visual cortex of many mammals, including cats. Later, a detailed map of the visual cortex was made. Scientists learned more about how the eye works because of their work.

They saw that children with cataracts still had trouble seeing after the cataracts were taken out. They started to look into it right away. The two scientists were able to learn more about child cataracts and how to treat it by working with kittens that were born with one eye closed.

In 1983, Wiesel left Harvard University to become the Vincent and Brooke Astor Professor at Rockefeller University. He was also given the job of leading the Laboratory of Neurobiology. He became President of the University in 1991 and stayed in that job until 1998.

Wiesel became the head of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Center for Mind, Brain, and Behavior at Rockefeller University after he retired in 1998. At the same time, he has become an advocate for international science and spends a lot of time trying to make things better for young scientists.

Works of note

Most people remember Wiesel for what he did with the ocular dominance column. He and Hubel took care of some kittens who had one eye stitched shut. They saw that the ocular dominance columns were very messed up after two months.

On closer inspection, they also found that the layers in the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) of the thalamus that represent the closed eye had been worn away, while the ocular dominance columns, which represent the open eye, are much bigger than they used to be. Later, they did the same thing with a monkey, and the same thing happened.

They came to the conclusion that each animal had a different critical period and that taking away an eye, even for a few days, during this critical period could damage the structure and function of the ocular-dominance column. So, if a child has cataracts, corrective surgery should be done as soon as possible.

Awards & Achievements

In 1981, Wiesel and Hubel won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries about how the visual system processes information.” Roger W. Sperry, who worked on brain hemispheres on his own, shared the prize with them.

In 1982, he was chosen to join the Royal Society as a Foreign Member.
In 2009, the Japanese government gave him the Order of the Rising Sun, Grand Cordon.

Personal History and Legacies

In 1956, Torsten Wiesel married Teeri Stenhammar. In 1970, they decided to split up. There were no kids in the family.

He got married to Grace Ann Yee in 1973. Sara Elisabeth Wiesel, their daughter, was born in 1975. She grew up and became a city planner. In 1981, the couple got a divorce.

In 1995, Wiesel married Jean Stein. She is a well-known author and has been the editor of a number of magazines, such as The Paris Review and Grand Street. 2007 was also the end of this union.

Estimated Net worth

Torsten Wiesel is one of the wealthiest and most well-known academics. Based on what we found on Wikipedia, Forbes, and Business Insider, Torsten Wiesel is worth about $1.5 million.