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Vernon B. Mountcastle Jr.

Dr. Vernon Mountcastle, noted Johns Hopkins brain researcher, died Jan. 11 at his home in Baltimore County. He was 96.
Dr. Vernon Mountcastle, noted Johns Hopkins brain researcher, died Jan. 11 at his home in Baltimore County. He was 96. (Handout photo, Baltimore Sun)

Dr. Vernon B. Mountcastle Jr., a retired Johns Hopkins brain researcher called the father of modern neuroscience, died of severe flu complications Jan. 11 at his home in Charlesbrooke in Baltimore County. He was 96.

"For all his deep fascination with the human brain, his first love was his family," said his daughter, Anne Mountcastle Bainbridge of Baltimore. "He was the rock for all of us."

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A Johns Hopkins statement announcing his death called Dr. Mountcastle "one of Johns Hopkins Medicine giants of the 20th century."

Born in Shelbyville, Ky., and raised in Roanoke, Va., he was the son of Vernon Mountcastle, a railroad construction and concrete executive, and Anna-Frances Marguerite Waugh, a community volunteer and teacher who taught him to read and write at an early age. He jumped ahead academically and earned a chemistry degree from Roanoke College, where he played tennis. A college professor recommended Johns Hopkins over Virginia medical schools.

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In a memoir, Dr. Mountcastle recalled a letter arriving Christmas Eve 1937 saying he had been admitted to Hopkins. His mother worried about him being in school "with all those Yankees."

He wrote in the memoir that his initial reaction to Baltimore was a "depressing experience" but his impressions later changed. He found the East Baltimore Hopkins campus to be "dilapidated." The courses, he said, were rigorous and the examinations grueling.

"I staggered out feeling like a boxer taking a standing 8 count and convinced my days at Hopkins were over," he wrote of leaving his first-year anatomy examination.

Dr. Mountcastle received his degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1942. He then joined the Navy's medical corps and was assigned to North Africa during World War II. He served in a hospital in the Atlas Mountains and treated the injured at the Italian campaign invasion at Anzio. During the Allied invasion of Normandy, Dr. Mountcastle worked at the Utah Beach sector in a medical station aboard a landing ship tank off the coast of France.

"My father did not talk about this experience for many years," his daughter, Anne, said. "In later life, he said his experience working in the Hopkins emergency room helped prepare him for war."

He credited his Hopkins training under Dr. Alfred Blalock with the ability to diagnose vascular shock in the badly wounded. He also complained that his patients should be sent back to England for proper hospitalization and ran afoul of a British order prohibiting their transport because of a German submarine presence in the English Channel. He was later warned not to criticize his British military superiors.

"I don't think he ever told a lie in his life," his daughter said.

He completed his military service and returned to Hopkins with ambitions to become a neurosurgeon — and possibly work under Dr. Walter Dandy, a neurosurgeon. The neurosurgical program was full and he elected to become a researcher in the Department of Physiology — for a year. He initially studied motion sickness with his colleague and mentor, Dr. Philip Bard. The pair also investigated the science behind rage behavior in cats.

"The department consisted of a library, one telephone line, an animal room, an operating room and an ancient electrophysiological rig ..." he wrote. He also soon gave up thoughts of being a neurosurgeon. He led the physiology department from 1964 to 1980 and then became a professor of neuroscience.

In 1957 he published his landmark study of the brain where he described the columnar organization of the cerebral cortex. He studied feline brains and called his study, "Modality and topographic properties of single neurons of cat's somatic sensory cortex."

The cat was the favorite model for physiologists for the first half of the 20th century.

"It was one of the great papers in the history of brain research. He produced the first functional map of the neocortex," said Dr. Solomon H. Snyder, a Hopkins distinguished service professor of neuroscience, psychiatry and pharmacology. "He was the sole author. He was working with two other colleagues but they did not want their names associated with his findings. His research was thought to be too far out, too risky."

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Dr. Snyder, the former director of the Department of Neuroscience, said Dr. Mountcastle "saw the big picture."

He went on to become a founder of the Hopkins Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute, where he worked until his retirement in 1987.

He received the 1983 Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research and in 1986 the National Medal of Science, among numerous other awards.

He wrote, with Dr. Gerald Edelman, "The Mindful Brain: Cortical Organization and the Group-Selective Theory of Higher Brain Function."

Dr. Mountcastle liked hands-on work. He kept a vegetable garden and was an avid sailor and horseback rider. While living on a Monkton farm, he raised horses. When a veterinarian was not available, he delivered a foal single handed when his prized mare began her labor. He later wrote his sense of accomplishment with this. He also read widely, including the Greek and Roman philosophers and works of history.

"He remained a Southern gentleman," said Dr. Snyder. "He wore summery, light tan suits."

Services are private.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include his wife of nearly 70 years, Nancy Clayton Pierpont, a retired Calvert School teacher; a son, Vernon Mountcastle III of Wallace, N.C.; a sister, Marguerite Cook of Roanoke; six grandchildren; and two great-granddaughters. A son, George Earle Pierpont Mountcastle, died in 1969.

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