The Department’s Founders

  • Feature Story

The Department’s Founders


BCS faculty members Sue Corkin, Peter Schiller, and Gerry Schneider

Hans-Lukas Teuber
Hans-Lukas Teuber (1916-1977) founded MIT’s Department of Psychology, which evolved into the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.  Teuber was one of the most influential neuropsychologists of his generation, and his vision for the MIT department was a major influence on the establishment of neuroscience as a field.  He died at age 61 in a swimming accident in the British Virgin Islands. 

On left: Hans-Lukas Teuber in 1961, newly installed as Head of the Psychology Section at MIT.

Teuber came to MIT from NYU’s Belleview Medical Center in 1960 as head of a section of the Department of Economics and Social Science.  In the first year, this section occupied shared space in a building that had been constructed for World War II related research and development (Building 20, no longer existing).  The small group of experimental psychologists already in the section did minimal teaching and offered no graduate program.  Within a few years, all the members of the old guard departed, and Teuber himself began teaching an undergraduate class, Introduction to Psychology—experimental psychology as he envisioned it.  Teuber was an amazingly popular lecturer with infectious enthusiasm for the field, an ability to relate to young people, and jokes that were too good to miss.

Two senior appointments in the early years were completely novel for a psychology department: one of the most distinguished systems neuroanatomists at that time—Walle J.H. Nauta—and a single-neuron physiologist—Emilio Bizzi. Another novelty for a university without a medical school was his spearheading the establishment, in 1964, of a Clinical Research Center for the study of neurological patients and for other kinds of clinical research.  MIT’s CRC was the first federally funded center of this nature to be established outside of a hospital or medical school. The same year, Suzanne Corkin received her PhD under Brenda Milner at McGill University, and Teuber hired her as a Research Scientist to establish a neuropsychology laboratory at the CRC and conduct investigations of neurological patients. Corkin later joined the faculty of the Psychology Department.

Lukas was a major figure at scientific meetings, often organizing them, and he was a popular “wrap-up” speaker at the end of symposia because of his extraordinary ability to synthesize a series of presentations with the key points made by each speaker, integrated to form an exciting story enhanced by his provocative generalizations.  He often gave talks throughout the country and the world, publicizing the research in the labs of his department and making his faculty and their discoveries widely known. Lukas and his faculty invited many distinguished investigators to speak at departmental colloquia on Friday afternoons.

On right: Teuber giving a talk in Lyon, France, when he received an honorary degree in 1975, speaking about and illustrating a discovery in one of the labs in his MIT department. His enthusiasm for the work of his faculty was boundless.

After the post-colloquium discussions, Lukas would take the speaker to his house for a dinner party, preceded by a closed session where the grad students met with the speaker for a freewheeling discussion without the more senior members of the department. Then, faculty and postdocs would begin arriving for the dinner party hosted by Lukas and his wife Marianne.

Lukas was passionate about safeguarding people who participated in research studies, and he helped spearhead the establishment of the first MIT Committee that reviewed all proposed experiments using human subjects, well before NIH mandated such committees.  Further, in an address to the International Psychology Congress in Paris, he expressed a view that explains his support for the anti-war activities of MIT students: “Our particular science is as central as physics, and ultimately more so. But it is also capable of as much abuse. … All of us here will have to abide by a new kind of Hippocratic oath, never to do harm, always to heal rather than hinder, to make life richer, and to make it free” (Teuber, 1978).


Richard Held
On right: Dick Held in 1944
Richard Held (born 1922) was the department’s second head, following the tragic loss of Han-Lukas Teuber in 1977.  Dick grew up in New York City and attended a science high school and Columbia University, where he studied engineering and liberal arts, obtaining BA and BS degrees (1944). The engineering degree enabled him to apply for an officer’s commission in the US Naval Reserve, which soon resulted in his becoming a tactical radar officer on an aircraft carrier. While on the ship, he studied a monograph by Wallach and Koehler on vision and visual aftereffects and illusions. When he returned to NYC, a colleague introduced him to Wolfgang Koehler.  Dick soon joined Koehler at Swarthmore where he obtained the MS degree and began his work on visual adaptation to prisms.  In the doctoral program in psychology at Harvard, he interacted with Georg von Békésy and completed a doctoral thesis on adaptation of auditory localization to systematic distortions in the relative timing of auditory signals to the two ears (1952).  While at Harvard, Dick married Doris Bernays.  They welcomed two sons and a daughter, and their marriage has endured for 64 years.

On left: Doris and Dick Held at home in Cambridge

Dick joined the faculty at Brandeis University where he and his students investigated visual and visuomotor adaptations to various kinds of prism rearrangement.  He realized that if the process of adaptation can result in a return of normal function, then such a process could be important in the early development of vision and visuomotor functions. To test this idea, he and grad student Alan Hein designed and conducted their famous “kitten carousel” experiments, which found the crucial importance of self-produced movement in development of visually guided reaching, as in human prism adaptation.  Another student, Burton White, extended these findings to human development and found that increased visuomotor interactions with environmental objects sped up the development of sensorimotor coordination in human infants living in the impoverished environments of state-supported orphanages.

On right: Held and BCS faculty member Alan Hein

In 1962, after serving as chair of the Brandeis department for a year, Dick took a sabbatical at MIT.  Teuber had expressed an interest in having Dick join him as a senior faculty member in the new psychology section. He found MIT to be a stimulating environment and soon joined Teuber’s faculty.  Alan Hein also obtained an MIT faculty position and established a laboratory for further studies of visual development in kittens.

Later, with the able help of Joseph Bauer who came from Harlow’s lab at Wisconsin, Dick altered the major work of his lab to studies of visuomotor development in monkeys, at the same time continuing the experiments on human adaptation to visual rearrangements.  In the course of this work, Dick noticed interesting dissociations that he came to realize indicated two different modes of visual processing. This realization crystallized in interactions with others in the department in the autumn of 1966, especially in an evening seminar where the similarity of ideas of four different investigators in the department at that time became evident: These four organized a symposium for the 1967 meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association, with presentations by each of them: David Ingle (work on goldfish vision), Gerald Schneider (work on brain lesion effects in hamsters), Colwyn Trevarthen (studies of monkeys with sections of brain commissures), and Richard Held (studies of human adaptation to rearrangements of vision).  Each of these investigators presented evidence in support of a separation of “what” and “where” functions in the visual brain.  The notion spread rapidly throughout the psychology and brain science communities.  The dissociation became encapsulated in the phrase, “two visual systems.”  In pursuing this idea, Poeppel, Frost, and Held studied patients with scotoma due to visual cortex lesions and found that humans with cortical blindness show a sparing of some ability to localize visual stimuli, despite their inability to identify the stimuli—the first demonstration of what later became known as “blindsight” (Lawrence Weiskrantz and colleagues).

Dick subsequently shifted the work in his lab to studies of visual development in humans: The baby lab replaced the monkey lab.  Pioneering studies led by Jane Gwiazda with participation by several collaborators (Anne Moskowitz, Sarah Brill, and Indra Mohindra), obtained measures of refraction and acuity in infants.  They discovered a high incidence of astigmatism in young infants and went on to examine stereoacuity, optokinetic nystagmus, and other abnormalities.  The large body of refraction data on the infants led to the first-ever set of measurements on the pathophysiology of myopia, inspiring new investigations on the conditions that contribute to this disorder.

After nine years as Head of the MIT Psychology Department, Dick stepped down.  A few years later, at age 73, he and two main collaborators (Jane Gwiazda and Joe Bauer) accepted faculty positions at the New England College of Optometry.  He continued to work part-time at MIT and currently collaborates with Pawan Sinha on Project Prakash, which examines vision in persons in India after removal of congenital cataracts.  Thus in his 93rd year, Dick continues to ask major research questions about the nature of vision and to influence younger investigators with his wit and wisdom. 

On left: Held today, at 93 years young.



Walle J. H. Nauta
Walle J.H. Nauta (1916-1994), with P.A. Gygax, developed a silver staining method that helped bring experimental neuroanatomy into the modern age.

Born in 1916 in Indonesia, Walle earned his MD and PhD degrees at the University of Utrecht. During World War II, he practiced medicine, and he and his wife Ellie risked their lives by sheltering a young Jewish woman in their home. The Nautas have two daughters and a son.

His PhD thesis, published in 1946, was a pioneering experimental study of brain-behavior relations. He studied the complementary roles of the anterior and posterior hypothalamic areas on sleep and waking, findings that have been supported by numerous subsequent research. Although he devoted most of his research career to neuroanatomical issues, Walle never lost a strong interest in the functions of the brain structures he described in his experimental work.

On left: Walle at his microscope in building E10, MIT (Photograph courtesy of Haring Nauta.)

Nauta taught at the University of Leiden (1946-1947) while continuing his basic research, and then immigrated to the United States where he did research at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (1951-1964) and taught at the University of Maryland (1955-1964). He came to MIT in 1964, already well recognized as a leading systems neuroanatomist, and his appointment in a department of experimental psychology was unique at that time. At MIT, Walle conducted research with graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and research associates in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences until his retirement in 1986. Nauta used his silver-staining method and its modifications to study various systems throughout the CNS, especially the various pathways closely associated with the hypothalamus—the limbic system pathways. He extended the concept of the limbic system to include structures in the midbrain core. His studies with research associates and graduate students also led to the definition of a limbic-system portion of the corpus striatum. He was named an Institute Professor in 1973.

Nauta was an avid sailor. He race his sailboat, a 17-foot Thistle, in Boston Harbor on many weekends in the spring, summer and fall. His son Haring often crewed with him.

On right: Walle Nauta at a departmental retreat (Photograph courtesy of Ernst Poeppel.)