Robert Wurtz was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. His mother was a bookkeeper. His father, who had to leave school after the sixth grade to earn money for his family, was a factory supervisor and self-taught scholar. Wurtz credits his own successes at school to his father, who was determined that his only child receive the formal education that had been denied to him.
After high school, Wurtz attended Oberlin College in nearby Ohio. While there he took a course in experimental psychology and another in the physiology of the nervous system. “The combination of the two courses opened up a new vista for me,” he recalls. “ I thought that if it were possible to measure both behavior and neuronal activity with equal precision, then maybe it would be possible to study how the neuronal activity produced the behavior.”
Wurtz left Oberlin in 1958 with a degree in chemistry. Although he briefly considered medical school, Wurtz decided that a research career would be a better fit for his temperament and skills. “Neuroscience was non-existent then,” he recalls. “I had the choice of either studying physiology or psychology.” He chose psychology and went to the University of Michigan to study with James Olds, who a few years earlier had co-discovered the pleasure center of the brain. For his thesis, Wurtz identified the reward and punishment areas of the amygdala, a part of the brain that plays a critical role in motivational processes.
After receiving his PhD, Wurtz accepted a research fellowship in the departments of physiology and neurology at Washington University. During his three years in St. Louis, Wurtz also worked for the Committee for Nuclear Information, a non-profit group organized by scientists and others to educate the public on the effects of nuclear weapons. “I felt that knowing a lot about the brain wouldn’t matter if we were all going to be incinerated,” he recalls.
After concern about nuclear weapons subsided with the end of atmospheric testing in 1963, Wurtz once again focused full time on studying the brain, and in 1965 accepted a fellowship and then a permanent position as a physiologist at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. He has stayed at one laboratory or another at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) ever since, except for a year (1975–1976) spent in England as a visiting scientist at Cambridge University.
It was at NIH that Wurtz developed his groundbreaking technique of studying the physiology of the visual system in the awake monkey. Prior to the 1969 publication of his now-classic paper on this technique, research showing how single neurons in the brain processed visual information had been conducted only in anesthetized animals. Wurtz was the first to demonstrate that these experiments could also be done successfully in the awake primate. He achieved this by training monkeys to hold their eyes still for a few seconds while he recorded their neurons as they reacted to moving objects and other visual stimuli.
With this technique (now used by cognitive neuroscientists around the world), Wurtz was able to replicate earlier research in anesthetized animals that had identified which cells in the brain’s striate cortex (also known as the primary visual cortex) became activated in response to the orientation and movement of visual stimuli. But he then carried the research further. In another study, also published in 1969, Wurtz asked this question: “An image moves with respect to the retina both when our eyes move and when the object moves, but in one case we perceive a stationary object, in the other case a moving object. How can we tell the difference?” He reported that neurons in the striate cortex could not tell the difference (a finding contrary to what had been hypothesized), but later found that such cells existed in another area of the mid-brain, the superior colliculus. Subsequent work in his laboratory showed that the superior colliculus provides a signal to the cerebral cortex that an eye movement is about to occur (referred to as a corollary discharge) so that perceptual compensation for the movement can be made.
Wurtz has made numerous other landmark contributions to science’s understanding of the physiology of visual behavior. He has identified, for example, visual functions of many brain areas, including those in the parietal lobe and the basal ganglia, and demonstrated the complex interplay between sensation and action in these areas. He also discovered that certain neurons in a part of the basal ganglia known as the substantia nigra are involved in memory-guided eye movements—and that placing lesions in that structure make it more difficult for primates to move their eyes in the direction of remembered objects. Memory-guided eye movements are now commonly used to evaluate patients with diseases of the basal ganglia, such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.
In 1978, Wurtz helped establish the National Eye Institute’s Laboratory of Sensorimotor Research, an institution that he then headed for more than two decades. During his early years at that post, he met and married his wife, Emily. Together they have raised five children, two from his first marriage and three from hers. In 2002, Wurtz stepped down as chief of the laboratory, but has remained as a senior investigator, continuing his research into how the brain processes visual information for perception and the initiation of movement.
“One of the great consequences of having this laboratory was that I was able to attract truly outstanding colleagues,” he says. Indeed, many of Wurtz’s post-doctoral fellows and other alumni of the Laboratory of Sensorimotor Research have gone on to become international leaders in the field of cognitive neuroscience. “I thought I was going to figure out how the brain worked, but it turns out that my contribution will be to get all these other people to figure out how the brain works,” he says, laughing.
Wurtz served as president of the Society for Neuroscience in 1991, and has received many professional honors during his distinguished career—including an honorary doctor of science from his undergraduate alma mater, Oberlin College, in 2009. He became a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1988 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1990.