Dr. Mortimer Mishkin
December 13, 1926 – October 2, 2021
Mortimer Mishkin, a neuroscientist who received the National Medal of Science for his role in unlocking some of the most vexing mysteries of the brain, including how memories are made and kept, died Oct. 2 at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 94. His daughter Wendy Mishkin confirmed his death but did not cite a cause.
Dr. Mishkin spent more than six decades at the National Institutes of Health, where he served for years as chief of the Laboratory of Neuropsychology within the National Institute of Mental Health. He became renowned within his field for his findings related to perception, memory and the circuits that connect one part of the brain to another.
“Studying the brain is both horribly and wonderfully complicated,” Dr. Mishkin once remarked, reflecting on his career. “It’s so frustrating it takes such a long time to figure out even a few of the thousands of circuits, but every discovery is a fantastic high.”
Dr. Mishkin was credited with contributing to numerous such discoveries.
Betsy Murray, the current chief of NIMH’s Laboratory of Neuropsychology, said in an interview that before Dr. Mishkin, many neuroscientists were preoccupied with understanding the various structures of the brain, such as the hippocampus or the amygdala. Dr. Mishkin, she said, was an “early proponent” of the idea “that we had to understand the entire neural circuit.”
His research illuminated the differences between cognitive memory — which involves specific information, such as a phone number, and discrete events like a birthday party — and noncognitive memory, which forms the foundation of habits and skills like making a daily commute or playing a musical instrument. Cognitive processes, he argued, take place in the limbic lobe of the brain, whereas behavioral memory is centered in the basal ganglia.
Dr. Mishkin conducted extensive research on primates. By studying lesions on monkey brains, he and a colleague, Karl Pribram, helped demonstrate that the inferior temporal cortex, a part of the brain located far from the primary sensory area, figured in visual discrimination of objects. It was a “big moment,” Dr. Mishkin told a Dartmouth College alumni publication years later, because “the whole idea of circuitry became real.”
Dr. Mishkin’s career coincided with technological advances that allowed ever more sophisticated imaging of the brain. In addition to his findings on vision, his work was credited with expanding scientific understanding of the relationship between memory and sensory systems including hearing and touch, as well as conditions such as amnesia.
His National Medal of Science, awarded in 2010 by President Barack Obama, recognized “his contributions to understanding the neural basis of perception and memory.”
“There is no more complex piece of matter in the universe than the human brain, and so the complexity is a huge challenge,” Dr. Mishkin said at the time. “Each brain area is important for a different kind of behavioral or mental function, yet no area is an island. Every area is part of a circuit. So we’ve been identifying pathways and trying to figure out how they work.”
Mortimer Mishkin was born in Fitchburg, Mass., on Dec. 13, 1926. His mother worked in a family grocery store, and his father was an insurance agent for Metropolitan Life. Both parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia.
Dr. Mishkin left high school early to enter a Navy officer training program during World War II. The program took him to Dartmouth, where he received a bachelor’s degree in business management in 1946. After postwar Navy service in Japan, he studied psychology at McGill University in Montreal, where he received a master’s degree in 1949 and a PhD in 1951.
He was hired in 1955 at NIH and spent the rest of his career there, serving as chief of the section on cognitive neuroscience. He retired in 2016, at age 90, but returned the next year as a scientist emeritus. Dr. Mishkin’s marriage to Patricia Sheppard ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 50 years, Barbara Friedman Mishkin of Bethesda; two daughters from his first marriage, Wendy Mishkin of Bethesda and Susie Wheatley of Pequea, Pa.; two stepdaughters from his first marriage, Roberta Zimnowodzki of Placentia, Newfoundland, and Patricia Hoovler of Fredericksburg, Va.; four stepchildren from his second marriage, Diane Thaler and Amy Thaler, both of Bethesda, Paul Thaler of Washington and David Thaler of Boston; a sister; nine grandchildren; nine great-grandchildren; and nine great-great grandchildren.
Dr. Mishkin’s honors included induction into the National Academy of Sciences in 1984 and the National Academy of Medicine six years later.
“As we’re able to learn more about how the brain works and how to fix it, millions of people are going to benefit,” he said when he received the National Medal of Science, “and through that process understanding will develop about the role of science in having made all of that possible.”
-Published in the Washington Post
Please consider a donation in lieu of flowers to the Brenda Milner foundation for the study of memory dysfunction. Donations can be made in Mort’s name to the Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital at https://www.alumni.mcgill.ca/give/index.php?new=1&new=1&formtype=MNI
firstname.lastname@example.org or call (514) 398-1958
The philanthropy office will ensure the funds go to support the purpose of Dr. Milner’s foundation.
Saturday, October 16, 2021
Dr. Mortimer Mishkin
October 16, 2021
Uncle Mort was a brilliant scientist but also a kind and generous human. I so enjoyed the intelligent conversations (some of which I understood) around the Thanksgiving table in Chevy Chase.
My favorite Uncle Mort story was when I brought my sons, Cannon and Jackson, then 5 and 3, for a short visit to Uncle Mort and Aunt Barbara’s house. As we were leaving, he gave the boys a hug and pressed something into their hands. Cannon was momentarily (and uncharacteristically) speechless when he realized it was a $20 bill. After a few seconds, he beamed, jumped up and down, and gave Uncle Mort a massive hug. From that moment on, every time we neared DC, the boys would want to stop by to visit. It became a verb. To be incredibly generous was “to Uncle Mort”.
I’m so sorry I couldn’t attend the memorial service but am grateful that I could view the live stream and that Cannon (who lives in DC now) could represent our family.
October 16, 2021
...sadness, tears and gratitude....that's what I am feeling today...he is my step father....most of my life...the brilliance shined brightly, the humility was clear and constant, the gentleness whispered always, the kindness kept us wrapped in warmth......it's hard to witness their love story end...we were lucky to have you in our lives Mort.....xoxoxo
October 14, 2021
October 13, 2021
My memories of Morty:
I volunteered at N.I. H. one summer and worked alongside my stepfather Morty. One of my duties was to answer the phone and I was nervous and answered it by saying "Animal Tomkins, Miss Behaviour speaking ". I remember Morty telling me if I went in the monkey's room they would jump up and down and holler and they did! Very fond memories of being in the lab . I remember The Institute of Living where he worked in Connecticut. I remember the Classical music which I grew to love. I remember Grandma Rose and Grandpa Harry ( his parents ) being at camp with his sister Marilyn. He loved his work and worked until he was 90! I was so proud of him when he received his award from President Obama, one of many achievements throughout his lifetime. I will always remember his laugh and his melodic , calm voice. The last time I saw him was in 2016 and I will cherish the time I had with him. I wish I could be there but alas I can't, so I look forward to being able to see the service honoring his life.
October 12, 2021
So many fond memories of Morty like holding my hand when I was sick. Introducing me to fine food at the Capital Grille and never letting us share the bill, Fiji water. So many more a terrible loss for all who knew him. He called me Betty Stay in touch extended family
October 11, 2021
I was a friend of Mort's daughter Susie in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. She was living with Mort at the time, so I got to know him very well. I remember him as a very kind and decent man. His love of classical music in particular had a profound effect on my life. By listening to his records, I grew to love classical music as well. It's been a very important part of my life since then. So thank you, Mort. To Susie and Wendy (and other relatives), I am so sorry for your loss. I will remember your father always.
October 11, 2021
October 6, 2021
To Aunt Barbara and family, I am so sorry for your tremendous loss. My heartfelt sympathy.
I hope that all the treasured memories that you created, can one day bring a smile to your face and offer you peace.
October 6, 2021
Ray and I were so sorry to learn about the death of Mort.
We have wonderful memories of Family
Functions and Social engagements we spent with Mort and Barbara,
Rita and Ray minsky