Roger Wolcott Sperry, neurobiologist: born Hartford, Connecticut 20 August 1913; Researcher, Harvard University 1941-46; Assistant Professor of Anatomy, University of Chicago 1946-53; Hixon Professor of Psychobiology, California Institute of Technology 1954-84 (Emeritus); Wolf Prize in Medicine 1972; Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology 1981; National Medal of Science 1989; married 1949 Norma Deupree (one son, one daughter); died Pasadena, California 17 April 1994.
WHEN Roger Sperry won the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 1981, his students and colleagues had two questions. The first was: which of his contributions did he win the prize for? Sperry's research had revolutionised two separate fields of neuroscience, shifting scientists' thoughts about the way the brain works and the way that nerves link together in the embryo. The second question was: where on earth was Sperry? An intensely private person who loved the outdoors, Sperry was touring the rugged Mexican coastline at the time, and it was in perfect character for him to continue his vacation incommunicado when he heard of the award on the radio. Members of his laboratory hung a 'Gone Fishing' sign on his office door and fielded reporters for over a week until their mentor
At the time of his death, Sperry was an emeritus professor of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he had worked since 1954. It was here that he performed the split-brain studies that won him his Nobel Prize, which was shared with the neuroscientists David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel of Harvard University, who were working on studies unconnected with Sperry's.
Sperry was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1913. He received his undergraduate degree in English Literature from Oberlin College, Ohio, in 1935, followed by a Masters degree in psychology in 1937, also from Oberlin. After earning his PhD in zoology from the University of Chicago, he held academic positions at Harvard University and at Chicago. In 1954, he became the Hixon Professor of Psychobiology at Caltech, retiring in 1984.
Before Sperry's experiments, neuroscientists believed that the left side of the brain dominated the right. Sperry's work, which began in cats and monkeys, culminated in a spectacular series of studies in human beings, showing that each hemisphere of the brain has its own consciousness and expertise.
The left, for instance, excels at language, mathematical and analytical skills, while the right is superior at spatial skills and at recognising objects. The experiments also demonstrated that the corpus callosum - a bundle of 200 million nerve fibres that links the hemispheres - is essential for proper information flow between the brain's two halves.
Sperry's human studies took advantage of a novel operation performed to halt serious epileptic fits. …