April 30, 2002

In Memoriam: Robert Livingston, M.D.,
1918-2002; Pioneered Human Brain Mapping

Robert Livinston, M.D., described as "visionary" and a "revolutionary thinker", was founding chairman of the Department of Neurosciences at UCSD School of Medicine.

Robert B. Livingston, M.D., founding chairman of the Department of Neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine and a renowned scientist, activist and humanitarian who served as adviser to the Dalai Lama, died Friday, April 26 in UCSD's Thornton Hospital. He was 83 and had been in declining health. He was a La Jolla resident.

Throughout his career Livingston was dedicated to linking brain anatomy and function. He comfortably straddled traditionally separate medical and scientific disciplines to investigate the connections between the nervous system, mental performance and behavior. He drew upon pathological, psychological, behavioral and clinical techniques to show that brain structure was the key to understanding learning, intellect, behavior, and impairment.

He also was active in nuclear disarmament, peace and social justice organizations, including the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

"Bob Livingston was a revolutionary thinker," said Leon Thal, M.D., chair of the UCSD Department of Neurosciences. "He launched this department and initiated UCSD's graduate program in neurosciences as a large, open organization embracing scientists from institutions throughout San Diego. His vision had no limits, which not only helped define our programs, but really defined his entire career."

"Bob was a visionary," said his friend and colleague Theodore Bullock, Ph.D., professor emeritus of Neurosciences at UCSD.  "Besides teaching medical and graduate students, he taught courses for undergraduates and liberal arts students on human nature and neurobiology.  He was one of the architects of the unique UCSD plan for integrating the medical school into the general campus, and created the world's first department of neuroscience by bringing together the neuro-anatomists, -chemists, -physiologists and clinical neurologists who are in separate departments in other medical schools. This concept was then new, and has led to La Jolla becoming one of the hotbeds of brain science."

Born in Boston on October 9, 1918, Livingston earned his undergraduate and medical degrees at Stanford University, where he also completed his residency training. During World War II, he served in the Naval Reserve, earning a Bronze Star in Okinawa. A physician in a Navy hospital on Okinawa when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Livingston never wavered in his lifelong dedication to nuclear disarmament, including serving as co-founder and president of the San Diego Physicians for Social Responsibility.

He was recruited from the NIH to UCSD in 1965 with the help of the late Roger Revelle, who took him to the Torrey Pines bluffs and, looking across the mesa where the campus was being built, described his vision for the fledgling university. Livingston, who later recalled the experience as inspiring, had served as a physician on a major Scripps Institution of Oceanography expedition in the 1950s. As the UCSD campus and its School of Medicine were being established, Revelle and others remembered the imaginative physician-scientist and persuaded him to join the UCSD faculty to lead the creation of the department of neurosciences, now considered the nation's top neurosciences graduate program by the National Research Council.

He stepped down as chair in 1970, continuing to serve as professor until 1989, when he became professor emeritus.

Before the advent of today's increasingly powerful imaging and computing technologies, Livingston was instrumental in developing some of the first three-dimensional images of the brain. In the 1970s, he led a painstaking project that involved slicing and photographing thin layers of a normal human brain encased in paraffin, with the photographs transformed through separate hand-digitized images to movie frames. This work resulted in the production of award-winning and widely used film of the dynamic brain. In the 1980s his laboratory was awarded a major grant to develop a prototype computer system to map the brain in three-dimensions in microscopic detail.

His interest in the workings of the brain extended to philosophical and religious explorations. He dated his interest in Buddhism back to his studies as a medical student at Stanford, when he noted the eastern religion's similarities to science, with its focus on personal discovery and experience. Invited by the Dalai Lama as one of the few non-Buddhists to a colloquium on Buddhist thought and Western science in 1988, Livingston became a friend and scientific adviser to the exiled Tibetan religious leader.

Livingston once said in a published interview that "I have this feeling about both hands and about the world, if you think of my left hand as my social work and my right hand as my professional, scientific work. For me, the two must continue to work, together and separately; they are a reflection of the whole me. One is idealistic, the other realistic. You have to pay attention to reality, and science is a good way to acquire insights into reality. But without idealism reality has very little meaning."

Livingston is survived by his daughters Louise of Novato, CA; Dana in Paris, France, and Justyn, of Bend, OR. Arrangements are being made for a public memorial celebrating his life, to be held at UCSD.

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Media Contact:
Leslie Franz
619-543-6163
lfranz@ucsd.edu