In Memoriam: Robert Galambos

Robert Galambos, a former Yale faculty member who was a pioneer of neuro-electrophysiology and a founder of the branch of science called neurophysiology, died of natural causes on June 18. He was 96 years old.

During a research career that spanned more than 70 years, Galambos helped lay the foundation for the foundations of the modern field of neuroscience. His research touched on m different aspects of brain function. A major contribution was in deciphering the electrical signals that send information from the eyes and ears to the brain and showing how the electrical oscillations in the brain give rise to mammals’ sensory experiences of the world. With Donald Griffin, he confirmed in 1939 that bats use echolocation to avoid obstacles while in flight.

Galambos spent several years at Yale in the 1960s as the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Physiology, and he received an honorary degree from the University.

Born of Hungarian immigrant parents in Lorain, Ohio, in April 1914, Galambos attended Oberlin University and completed graduate and postdoctoral studies at Harvard University, where he teamed with Griffin to solve the riddle of how bats are able to snatch bugs in the air and avoid obstacles in flight. Their experiments demonstrated how the high-frequency sound made by bats are reflected off of objects in the environment, and that these echoes are detected and localized by the bat’s ultra-sensitive ears. In further studies, Galambos discovered how sounds activate the auditory nerve and send messages into the brain that allow us to hear.

He later demonstrated that constant communication between neuron cells and glial cells is a fundamental principle of brain function, a hypothesis he had early advanced and which provoked heated controversy.

In the 1950s, he served as head of neurophysiology research at the Walter Reed Army Research Institute. After spending several years at Yale, in 1968 he accepted Robert B. Livingston’s invitation to become a founding member of the world’s first neurosciences department at the University of California-San Diego. With others, he was instrumental in establishing a graduate training program in neurosciences there. He also collaborated with other researchers to set up a program in which infants at risk for hearing loss could be tested by non-invasive brain recordings. If hearing impairment was detected, the child could be fitted with hearing aids at an early age before their language development was impaired. This “brainstem audiometry” technique he pioneered has been adopted by children’s hospitals throughout the world.

In the last 20 years, Galambos studied how the eye and brain work together to produce images of the world we perceive. He advanced the theory that the eye sends information to the brain in discrete packets tied to eye movements, rather than continuously.

Galambos is survived by his wife, Phyllis; his daughters, Joan, Kate and Ann; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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