Farewell to a Perl of wisdom


Ed Perl, courtesy of the UNC School of Medicine and Bonnie Taylor-Blake.

I am sad to report that Ed Perl, Sarah Graham Kenan Professor Emeritus at University of North Carolina, has died. Ed was a luminary in the field of neuroscience, a pioneer in the study of nociception, and an inspiration to many including me.

Ed had Chicago roots including graduating from the University of Illinois – Chicago with an MD.

Often students ask me about whether they should pursue an MD or a PhD. I tell them that the degree will not define their opportunity to perform excellent research which certainly has been done with either degree. Ed’s career exemplifies this so beautifully as he was an MD doing absolutely basic and fundamental work phenomenally well.

Ed served as the first President of the Society for Neuroscience, the mother ship for all practicing neuroscientists. SfN began with 500 members in 1969 and surpassed 40,000 members in 2005. In 1971, SfN had its first meeting, drawing just shy of 1400 attendees; meetings nowadays have >40,000 meeting attendees. SfN started publishing  The Journal of Neuroscience in 1981. JN has grown into a leading neuroscience publication.

Beyond serving as the inaugural President of the Society for Neuroscience, Ed also published his work in JN and attended SfN meetings regularly. I treasure my annual talks with Ed in yearly meetings. I remember those conversations remarkably well. Ed was a kind man and he always told me what he thought about my work in a generous and constructive manner, pushing me in some instances and applauding me in others. These conversations are ones that I remember unusually vividly.

Ed made a fundamental contribution to neuroscience by carving out nociception as a discrete sensory modality to join hearing, vision and so on. [For a more complete discussion of Ed’s place in history, see this essay.] Ed and colleagues performed a careful and thorough examination of the sensory pathways engaged by noxious stimulation. Ed attached the name nociceptor (originally coined as noci-ceptor by Sherrington) to the primary afferents that respond to noxious stimulation. Today, thousands of neuroscientists in hundreds of labs in the academy and in Pharma study nociceptors, stand on the shoulders of Ed Perl, one of the greats.

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