“Brain Stem” for Columbia Neuroscience: Pioneering Researcher Harry Grundfest

Bridget O’Brian
June 22, 2011

Dear Alma,

Columbia is big in interdisciplinary neuroscience, including two Nobel laureates, but who came before them?

Neuro Fan

Dear Neuro Fan:

Before there were neuroscientists at Columbia, there was Harry Grundfest, a professor of neurology who taught at the College of Physicians and Surgeons starting in 1945. Grundfest’s contributions to what was then called neurophysiology were “extensive, touching all corners of the field, providing inspiration and direction to more than 100 young scientists and proposing mechanisms for how membrane electrical events determine cellular processes,” according to a 1995 biographical memoir of Grundfest by John P. Reuben, a medical researcher who wrote many papers with him.

Born in Minsk, Russia, Grundfest and his family immigrated to the United States in 1913, when he was nine. He received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in zoology and physiology from Columbia, then taught at Swarthmore and Cornell before joining the Rockefeller Institute (as Rockefeller University was then called), where he did research with Herbert Gasser, who later won a Nobel Prize for his study of electrical signaling in nerve cells.

During World War II, Grundfest worked for the government doing research on wound damage to the nervous system, and after the war was recruited to Columbia’s new neurophysiology laboratory at P&S. His expertise in both biology and electrical engineering was unusual, as were his studies of the nervous systems of many different animals. He studied biochemical changes in nerve cell signals and moved quickly up the academic ladder. 

His groundbreaking research at the College of Physicians and Surgeons attracted the likes of future Nobel laureate Eric Kandel to Columbia, and Grundfest designed a workspace at the medical center that was intended to promote maximum contact among his postdoctoral students.

Research rooms surrounded a large central area, where a blackboard filled an entire wall and long tables and chairs filled the middle, according to a monograph written later by one of the post-docs. Discussions and debates occurred throughout the day, particularly at lunch, where on the center table sat several jars of Kosher sour dill pickles, delivered regularly from the Lower East Side.

His career was sidetracked in 1953, when he was called before Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee to testify as to whether he was a Communist sympathizer. Grundfest testified that he wasn’t but took the Fifth Amendment when asked about his political views. Government funding for his research quickly dried up.

With the support of the medical school dean Grundfest’s career eventually recovered, and he went on to write scores of papers with colleagues. Each summer, he moved his research materials to the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., where he and his research assistants would study single nerve cells in sea creatures such as squid.

Grundfest is credited with influencing hundreds of young researchers during his years at Columbia. One of them was Eric R. Kandel, University Professor and Kavli Professor of Brain Science, who was finishing his studies at New York University’s medical school in 1955 when he decided to take a basic neural science elective at Columbia with Grundfest.

In 2000, Kandel shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his seminal work with the sea slug Aplysia, a creature with relatively few nerve cells. His experience with Grundfest, the Nobel laureate writes in his autobiography, In Search of Memory, propelled him to “a new career, a new way of life.”