Childhood & Early Life
Roger Wolcott Sperry was born on August 20, 1913, in Hartford, Connecticut. His father, Francis Bushnell Sperry, was a banker while his mother, Florence Kraemer Sperry, was trained in business school. He had a younger brother, Russell Loomis Sperry, who grew up to be a chemist.
Roger’s father died when he was just eleven years old. To support the family, his mother accepted employment in the local high school as an assistant to the principal.
Roger began his education at Elmwood, Connecticut and then went to William Hall High School in West Hartford, Connecticut, passing out from there in 1931. During this period, he made his mark both at academics and sports.
Subsequently, Sperry entered Oberlin College on a four-year Amos C. Miller Scholarship with English as his major. Sometime now, he was introduced to psychology by Professor R. H. Stetson and began to grow an interest in brain functioning.
Consequently, after receiving his B.A. in English literature in 1935 he started studying psychology under Professor R. H. Stetson. In 1937, he received his M.A. degree in psychology. Next, he decided to do his Ph.D. on zoology. Therefore, he stayed back one more year at Oberlin College to prepare for that.
Later, he began his doctoral work under Paul A. Weiss at the University of Chicago. In the course of his work, he tried to answer if nature was more important than nurture. He received his Ph.D. degree in 1941.
As part of his doctoral work, Sperry took nerves from right hind legs of the rats and placed them in the left hind legs of other rats and vice verse. He then subjected them to electric shock and found that if the shock was applied to the left paw, the rat would lift its right paw and vice verse.
After repeated experiments, Sperry came to conclusion that something can never be learned. His doctoral dissertation was titled ‘Functional results of crossing nerves and transposing muscles in the fore and hind limbs of the rat’.
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Soon after receiving his PhD in 1941, Sperry joined Harvard University and began his one-year postdoctoral research as a National Research Council Fellow under Professor Karl S. Lashley. However, he and Lashley spent the greater part of the year at the Yerkes Primate Research Center.
In 1942, he became Biology Research Fellow at Yerkes Laboratories of Primate Biology under Harvard University. Here too, his research was focused on neuronal rearrangement. However, this time he experimented with the salamanders.
As part of the experiment, he divided the optic nerves and rotated the eyes of the salamanders 180 degrees. The animals behaved as though the world was upside down. Although he tried to train them he was not successful in changing their response.
In 1946, he returned to the University of Chicago as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Anatomy. Sometime in 1949, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was sent to Adirondack Mountains in New York for treatment. It was during that period that he began to develop his ideas on mind and brain.
He published the concept in 1952 in ‘American Scientist’, the well-known science and technology magazine. However, prior to that, in 1951, he had established the Chemoaffinity hypothesis, which states that the initial wiring diagram of an organism is determined by the genetic makeup of its cell.
Also in 1952, Sperry became the Section Chief of Neurological Diseases and Blindness at the National Institutes of Health and later in the year, joined Marine Biology Laboratory in Coral Gables, Florida. He then returned to University of Chicago as Associate Professor of Psychology and remained there till 1953.
Sometime now, he was offered the post of Hixson Professor of Psychobiology at California Institute of Technology. Therefore, in 1954, he shifted to California, where he continued with his work on the regeneration of nerve fibers.
At Caltech, he also began to work with cats on split brain functions. He connected the left eye of the cats with the left hemisphere of their brain and the right eye with the right hemisphere. Then he cut off the corpus callosum, which joins the two hemispheres of the brain.
He then proceeded to teach the cats to distinguish between squares and triangles first with right eye and then with left eye covered. Their response led him to believe that the left and right hemispheres of the brain function independently.
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Next, he began to work with epileptic patients, whose corpus callosum had been severed in order to contain the ailment. This work not only helped to understand the lateralization of brain function to a great extent, but at personal level, it earned him the coveted Nobel Prize.
During later years, he turned away from the experimental science and began developing a theory on consciousness. He also worked to develop science based on ethical values. His last published book was ‘Science and Moral Priority: Merging Mind, Brain, and Human Values’ (1983).
Sperry remained at the California Institute of Technology until 1984. Later, he served on the Board of Trustees and as Professor of Psychobiology Emeritus at the institute. However, he never stopped working and was often found at his office deeply thinking or jotting down his thought in his notebook.
His pioneering work on the African Clawed Frog, which resulted in the start of the Chemoaffinity Hypothesis, is one his most important works. He removed the eye of a frog and after rotating it 180 degree replaced it in such a way that ventral part of the eye was positioned at top and the dorsal was positioned at the bottom.
Very soon the nerves were regenerated. But, when the food source was place above the frog, it flipped its tongue downwards. After repeated experiments, he came to the conclusion that the optic nerve, which transfers visual experience from retina to brain and neuron in the tectum region of the brain, used a chemical marker, which influenced their connectivity.
He is best known for his work on split brain. In general, the left and right hemisphere of the brain is connected with the corpus callosum. While working the cats, he had found that if the corpus callosum is severed the two hemisphere of the brain can act independently.
The experiment led to the notion that the cutting of the corpus callosum would help an epileptic patient because that would prevent the seizure from traveling from one hemisphere to another. It was also found that such an operation did not have any impact on the patients’ behavior.
That led to the question if the corpus callosum actually had any function. To find that out Sperry began to work with his graduate student Michael Gazzaniga on epileptic patients, whose corpus callosum had been severed. After a long and exhaustive research it was found that it served as a channel of communication between the two hemispheres of the brain.
He also found that each half of the brain performs specialized task. The left hemisphere is dominant over analytical and verbal tasks such as writing, speaking, mathematical calculation, reading while the right hemisphere handles spatial, visual, and emotional tasks such as problem solving, recognizing faces, symbolic reasoning, art etc.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1949, Sperry married Norma Gay Deupree. The couple had two children; a son named Glenn Michael, and a daughter named Janeth Hope.
Sperry was an enthusiastic paleontologist and had a large collection of fossils. He was also an excellent sculptor and loved to work with ceramics. Going on camping and fishing trips with his family was another of his favorite pastime.
Towards the end of his life he started suffering from a degenerative neuromuscular disease. He died on April 17, 1994, due to heart failure, at Pasadena, California..