The Marshall M. Parks Medal

2007 Silver Medalist

David H. Hubel, MD (1926 – 2013)

Research collaboration with Torsten Wiesel earned them a Nobel Prize and mutual praise as ‘Rock Stars’ of ophthalmology. A brilliant neurobiologist, he defined how the brain handles the information it receives from the eyes.

David H. Hubel Headshot


Dr. Hubel was born, to American parents, in Windsor, Ontario, and raised in Montreal. He is thus American and Canadian! He studied at McGill College and Medical School and spent summers at the Montreal Neurological Institute where he became fascinated by the nervous system. He pursued a residency in Neurology and spent a year of clinical neurophysiology under Herbert Jasper, a brain scientist. In 1954, he moved to the USA and Johns Hopkins for a Neurology year. Fate had it, as a year later he was drafted by the army and assigned to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Washington, DC. This is when his research career took off and the rest is history! There he started recording from the primary visual cortex of sleeping and awake cats and perfected how to record from a single cell. In 1958, he moved to Johns Hopkins to the laboratory of Stephen Kuffler, and began his collaboration with Torsten Wiesel, and discovered orientation selectivity and columnar organization in the visual cortex. A year later, Kuffler's entire laboratory moved to Harvard Medical School in Boston, where 5 years later, the new Department of Neurobiology was created. In 1981, Hubel became a founding member of the World Cultural Council.  From 1988 to 1989 he was the president of the Society for Neuroscience

The Hubel and Wiesel experiments greatly expanded the scientific knowledge of sensory processing. In 1981 they received the Nobel Prize for two major contributions: firstly, their work on the development of the visual system, which involved a description of ocular dominance columns ; and secondly, their work establishing a foundation for visual neurophysiology, describing how signals from the eye are processed by the brain to generate edge, motion, stereoscopic depth and color detectors, building blocks of the visual scene. By depriving kittens from using one eye, they showed that columns in the primary visual cortex receiving inputs from the other eye took over the areas that would normally receive input from the deprived eye. They elucidated our understanding of deprivation amblyopia, the critical period, cortical plasticity and binocular vision, and showed that ocular dominance develops irreversibly early in childhood. 

It is noteworthy that the understanding of sensory processing in animals served as inspiration for the SIFT descriptor (Lowe, 1999), which is a local feature used in computer vision for tasks such as object recognition and wide-baseline matching. The SIFT descriptor is arguably the most widely used feature type for these tasks.

Dr Hubel received innumerable awards and prizes and was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society. He loved music and played the piano, the recorder and the flute. He enjoyed woodworking and photography; owned a small telescope for astronomy; and skied, and played tennis and squash. He valued learning languages, especially French, Japanese and German. Dr Hubel married Ruth Izzard in 1953. They had three sons and four grandchildren.  He was the John Enders University Professor at Harvard Medical School from 1982-2000, a senior fellow of Harvard’s Fellows Society and Research Professor of Neurobiology Emeritus and stayed active in full-time research and teaching until his passing on September 22, 2013, in Lincoln, MA.