The August 27, 2013 issue of the New York Times contains the obituary of Peter Huttenlocher, who died at age 82 of pneumonia, the result of Parkinson’s disease preventing him from clearing particles from his lungs.
Huttenlocher was born in Germany on Feb. 23, 1931, to a chemist father and opera singer mother. They divorced when he was young. Before World War II, his mother left for America after she refused to join the Nazi Party. His father remained in Nazi Germany.
Peter visited his mother in America when he was 18 and never left. He was graduated from Harvard Medical School magna cum laude and trained at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). In 1974, he became professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago and stayed for 30 years, before retiring in 2003.
In 1962, when I was a resident at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Peter often consulted on my neurology patients. He would write 30 page-long hand-written histories and physicals on my patients, the result of hour-long interviews (other consultants rarely wrote more than a couple pages or spent more than a few minutes with the patients). He showed this same obsessive behavior in all areas of his life.
He used an electron microscope to photograph billions of brain synapses: where nerves join together. Then he began counting nerves in children’s brains at his laboratory to show that the human brain develops rapidly in young children, and that when a nerve dies, the brain is supposed to get rid of it. He became one of the most famous pediatric neurologists in the world for his discoveries on human brain development.
Ground-Breaking Research on Early Learning
He showed that in the first year of life there is an incredible increase in brain activity: 250 million synapses fire in one area of the brain soon after birth and increase to more than 500 million in the next few months, to eventually reach their peak, at age 10 months, at about one and a half times the number of nerve connections in normal adults. After age one, brain growth slows down and there is a steady loss of synaptic density. At age 10, the number of nerve junctions drops to adult levels. Nerve growth is greatest in the pre-school years.
Then he showed that the brains of mentally disabled people do not get rid of old nerve junctions after they stop functioning. Thus intellectual growth depends on both:
•the rapid increase in nerve junctions soon after infancy, and
•getting rid of the old nerve junctions as one enters puberty.
His Research Influenced Legislators, Educators, and Parents
His findings from the hours he spent counting nerves have been the basis of government and educational policies and parents’ priorities to place special emphasis on the importance of early education. His findings encouraged parents to start a second language for their children or playing a musical instrument soon after infancy, the time when nerve growth is greatest. His research encouraged school systems to emphasize education at the earliest possible age. His research also encouraged older people to go back to school and to perform all sorts of challenging mental tasks in an effort to preserve their disappearing aging neurons.
Other Famous People I Met During My Training in Boston
Judah Folkman, M.D. (February 24, 1933 – January 14, 2008) was the chief resident in surgery in 1962 at the Mass General hospital when I did my residency. The following year, at age 34, he became the youngest professor and chairman of the department of surgery at Harvard Medical School. He discovered that tumors can be kept in check by choking off the supply of blood they need to grow. He created a cancer drug, Avastin, that has prolonged the lives of many cancer patients and restored the vision of people with some degenerative retinal diseases. When he died of a heart attack at age 74, he was on the short list for the Nobel Prize (which is awarded only to living people).
Kenneth Geddes Wilson (June 8, 1936 – June 15, 2013) won the 1982 Nobel Prize in Physics for showing how to calculate moments such as when ice melts or an iron bar loses its magnetism. He also won the Heptagonal Championship two-mile run three straight years. He died of a lymphoma, at age 77.
William French Anderson, M.D. (December 31, 1936 – ) is a molecular biologist who was the first person ever to succeed in gene therapy, treating a four-year-old girl suffering from an immuno-deficiency disorder (called “bubble boy disease”). He also was an outstanding quarter-miler who won the Harvard/Yale Oxford/Cambridge quarter mile.