Nobel Prize winner Torsten Wiesel turns 100: “Old men like me should use their experience to help the young”

In 1955, a young Torsten Wiesel jumped on a boat to the US and embarked on a fabulous career as a neuroscientist, crowned with a Nobel Prize for his work. Now 100 years old, he looks back on an intense life and his upbringing in Stockholm, Sweden, which shaped his desire to help the vulnerable in society.

After 40 years in the lab and many demanding assignments well beyond that, Torsten Wiesel now has plenty of time on his hands – even for a journalist from his old homeland.

“When I turned 95, I decided to retire from everything. Now, I’m a free person with no major responsibilities in life. I just enjoy the freedom of being able to read, listen to music – do whatever I’m interested in that’s unrelated to my job,” he says via a link from his apartment in New York, where he lives with his wife Mu.

A conversation with Torsten Wiesel is a unique experience because it is both a journey through time (“I used to see Per Albin Hansson [editors note: legendary Swedish prime minister during WW2] on tram 12, he was sitting there like any other man”) and a clear sense of living in the present (“I was at a jazz club yesterday”).

And it is a unique life he has had, right since his childhood. The family lived at Beckomberga Hospital, the large mental hospital in western Stockholm, where his father, Fritz Wiesel, was the chief psychiatrist.

“Growing up in a mental hospital sounds serious, but we felt safe there. There was a large fenced-in area with a garden and a football pitch, so the patients could feel somewhat free even if they couldn’t get out into the world.”

His contact with patients affected him, even if he did not realise it at the time. This, combined with the fact that his brother Bengt suffered from schizophrenia, contributed to him becoming interested in studying the brain much later, but it also instilled in him a commitment to people who find it difficult to cope with ordinary life.

“Most of the patients were there because their families were unable to care for them. Nowadays, we have homeless people on the streets, often with mental health problems. I find it cruel that we don’t help them, take care of them and give them shelter, food and medicine.”

After studying medicine at the Karolinska Institute, he spent a year as a junior physician at Beckomberga and a period at a child psychiatric clinic at the Karolinska Hospital before Torsten Wiesel took up a research position under the eminent neurologist Carl Gustaf Bernhard, Professor at the Karolinska Institute and later Permanent Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

One year later, Stephen Kuffler, a friend and fellow researcher at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, called and Wiesel immediately started packing his bags.

“I didn’t really have the required experience, but Bernhard was confident that I could manage it.”

After four years at Johns Hopkins, Torsten Wiesel joined Harvard Medical School in Boston, where he eventually began a highly fruitful 20-year collaboration with researcher David Hubel.

Together, they studied the communication of nerve cells via electrical impulses in the visual cortex - in practice, how the brain visually perceives the world around us and the ability of brain cells to adapt during development.

“We called it the functional architecture of the visual cortex - a very elegant and well-organised system that nobody knew anything about but which we were able to map using new methods. Nobody had done that before, which was one reason why David Hubel and I won the Nobel Prize,” says Torsten Wiesel.

It was an extraordinary feeling to be honoured with the world’s most prestigious scientific award and to receive it at home in old Stockholm - the year was 1981. However, it was also somewhat double-edged, or as Torsten Wiesel says, ‘a mixed blessing’.

“Above all, I wanted to continue working on the many unsolved problems surrounding the functioning of the visual cortex. I was not interested in being distracted by prizes and fame, but wanted to continue my work,” he says.

After all his years of working as a scientist, Torsten Wiesel became President of Rockefeller University in 1991 – an institution he speaks of with great affection, and whose website describes his time there as ‘a scientific renaissance’ for the institution.

“The atmosphere there is more Swedish than American. I call it a science village because that’s the kind of feeling I wanted to create there. Everyone who works there - even the cleaners and janitors - is an important part of creating new knowledge, which in turn will help the world.”

After seven years, at the age of 75, he stepped down from the position of Rector but continued his commitment to young researchers through a series of roles as an adviser and board member of various organisations, including those working on interdisciplinary issues and for independent research.

“I came to the conclusion that funding for research should be given to young people, and that old men like me should use their experience to help young people develop their scientific skills.”

Several of his assignments have centred on human rights. For example, he chaired the National Academy of Sciences Human Rights Committee. He also co-founded a scientific organisation to support collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian biological scientists.

Those assignments are now over, and Mr Wiesel can devote more time to his main interests: music and art. He has maintained his health and vigour with Thai chi, qi gong and jogging, which are combined with food and drink in moderation.

Visits to Sweden have become increasingly rare, but they do occur.

“I have friends and family in Sweden, and I like my old country. I enjoy staying there. However, I wanted to focus on living in one country. It’s better for my wife, too; she loves New York and grew up in San Francisco.”

With his 100th birthday approaching he has some intense days ahead.

On his birthday, 3 June, a grand dinner for staff will be held at Rockefeller University, where Torsten Wiesel is still held in high esteem. The following day, there will be a public – and sold-out – concert in Torsten’s honour at Carnegie Hall with music of his own choosing.

Afterwards, it’s off to Stockholm for further festivities.

“You only live once, and you had better enjoy it.”

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