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Interview with Torsten Wiesel

In this interview, Torsten Wiesel, born in Sweden in 1924, talks about growing up on the grounds of a mental hospital outside of Stockholm, and the effect that the patients had on shaping his worldview and values.

Wiesel, who studied medicine at the Karolinska Institute, recalls his quick turn to research and his interest in learning more about the brain after a short time working as a doctor and psychiatrist made clear to him just how limited treatment options were for psychiatric patients. Wiesel describes coming to Steven Kuffler’s lab at the Wilmer Institute at Johns Hopkins University in 1955, David Hubel’s arrival at the lab in 1958, and the research that led to their Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1981. Wiesel recalls the playful spirit of discovery that he and Hubel shared and the way that they approached their research, as they studied single cells and quickly discovered that cells in the brain are sensitive to the orientation of contours, cortical architecture, and that there is a critical period in the development of vision.

He talks about coming to The Rockefeller University in 1983 and his tenure as the university’s president (1991-1998). An international leader in science advocacy, Wiesel describes his work as chairman of the Committee on Human Rights of the National Academies of Science, Medicine, and Engineering (1994-2004); secretary-general of the Human Frontier Science Program (2000- 2009); and helping to found, and chairing the board of, the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, which he modeled after The Rockefeller University.

This short film is excerpted from the oral history interview conducted with Torsten Wiesel on April 10 and 11, 2017.