Chapter II: Establishing the Society for Neuroscience, 1968-1970

The Committee on Brain Sciences’ realization that collaborative work in brain science in the U.S. was alive and well, but without strong recognition, support, or communications, made a strong case for an organization that could articulate the interests of this new generation of scientists who, armed with increasingly sophisticated methods, were often transgressing the traditional disciplinary boundaries in understanding brain and nervous system function. As early as June 1967, the committee agreed that a “formal organization of brain scientists in this country was desirable and feasible at this time, and that the emphasis should be on innovative means of communicating with students and integrating the brain research specialties.”18 CBS members had ambitious goals for the new entity: to “help direct attention to the importance of neurosciences for the future intellectual and emotional well-being of this country.”19 They believed that recent findings and research providing insights into vision and memory and suggesting therapies for Parkinson’s, stroke, and mental illness would attract public interest and build support for increased institutional and academic funding, as well as facilitate educational recruitment and scientific collaboration.

The question of how to design and establish such an organization preoccupied the CBS in 1968 and 1969. On the one hand, a network of existing local and regional groups, under a name such as the “Federation of American Brain Research Organizations,” could be most easily and quickly established and would attract ready support from those who were already involved in scientific collaborations. But some, such as Robert Doty, doubted whether a network would have the public impact of a single organization, recruit new scientists who had been working in isolation, or adequately “unite the many disparate strands.” Ultimately, the plan to create a single, independent organization won out, after Doty conducted a survey of representative scientists that expressed “a groundswell … in favor of better vehicles for scientific exchange than existing organizations offered.”20

The Founding Members
Edgar A. Bering, NINDS Charles U. Lowe, NICHD
A.T. Bever, NSF Louise H, Marshall, NAS-NRC
John M. Brookhart, NSF Neal Miller, Rockefeller University
James H, Brown, NSF Edward R. Perl, University of Utah
Robert W. Doty University of Rochester Alfred Pope, McLean Hospital
Fred Elmadjian, NIMH Vernon Rowland, Case Western Reserve University
Daniel X. Freedman, Pritzker School of Medicine James M. Sprague, University of Pennsylvania
Ralph Gerard, UC Irvine Eliot Stellar, University of Pennsylvania
Lore Heinlein, Elsevier Robert L. Thompson, Hunter College
Richard T. Louttit, NIMH John E. Wilson, University of North Carolina

In August 1968, Ralph Gerard appointed Ed Perl of the University of Utah as chair of the 20 member Executive Group for the Organization of Brain Sciences. Although their initial charge was described as organizing and coordinating the “extensive network of local organizations,”21 the Executive Group agreed that their goal was to create an interdisciplinary society and to ensure its survival through its formative years.

The mandate for the new society was clear; as Perl recalled in 1986, “there were pleas for an organization to promote the public image of work on the nervous system and to enhance financial support for it.”22 Over the winter months of 1969, Perl drafted a constitution and bylaws for this new organization and enlisted Louise Marshall to request institutional assistance and initial operating funds from NAS.23 The Executive Group shared drafts of the constitution and bylaws — which put no limits on members from any subdiscipline — with 200 colleagues they had identified as potential members. Interest in the new society began to build.24

On June 16, 1969, at the NAS building in Washington, DC, the Committee on Brain Sciences held the crucial meeting that would bring the new Society into being. Psychologist Neal Miller of Rockefeller University, as the chair, reviewed the survey findings and the proposed constitution and bylaws submitted by Perl and his Executive Group. “Miller waved his long yellow pencil” and “all 20 of those at the conference table … being qualified neuroscientists, became founding members.” The eight members of the Steering Committee, with Gerard, Miller, and Marshall, declared themselves the first acting Council of the Society, authorized to serve until there were enough members to hold a formal election. Perl was named acting president and Marshall was designated acting secretary-treasurer, until elections could be held.25

A Rose by Any Other Name: Naming the Society

Conjuring up an appropriate name raised fundamental questions about the nature of neuroscience — issues that, to this day, have remained relevant. First and foremost, the founders wanted a name that underscored the expansive scope that they envisioned for the field. But then should the name emphasize the disparities or the perceived unities within the American brain science community? And what of the word “brain”? Was it essential, or would it deter some potential members whose work did not fall so readily under the umbrella of “brain” sciences? Further, was there a group of words that could encompass all the methods and problems on which U.S. researchers were working? Was it possible to bring together, within a single society, researchers who focused on the molecular biology of single cells and those who worked on diseases, like schizophrenia, that involve not only the brain but just as intimately an afflicted individual’s social and psychological world?

The “Neurobiological Society” was deemed “just a little narrow to psychiatrically and behaviorally oriented members” while some felt that the word “American” should be in the name to clarify its affiliative role in IBRO.26 As Perl recalled the discussion:

Some … favored putting “Brain” into the title, and there also were arguments in favor of including “Behavior” in the title. The majority of the Executive Group believed that the term “Brain” would tend to inhibit interest in membership by investigators interested in axons, ganglia, the spinal cord, or molecular processes. This, so it seemed to us, would defeat the notion of interdisciplinary contacts. Certain early proposals for names were awkward –for example, “Society for Research on the Nervous System.” … “American Neurosciences Society” disturbed several of the Executive Group. “American” implied more than the United States and its immediate neighbors to the north and south, and the use of “Neuroscience” as an adjective for “Society” appeared ungrammatical, although efficient.27

Other discussions revolved around whether “Neuroscience” should be singular or plural. Gerard and Marshall both adamantly preferred “Neuroscience” because it denoted a single, unified field.28 Eliot Stellar recalled that the singular “could more readily include all “neuro” fields equally” while the plural “would imply an amalgamation of old fields.”29

In the end, as David Bodian explained, “the word ‘science’ was indispensable, and ‘Neuroscience’ told it all. I believe it was Frank Schmitt who first visualized an organization in which scientists of every description, from mathematics to psychiatry, could contribute to each other’s understanding of the workings of the nervous system.”30 Finally, the broad and simple name, “Society for Neuroscience”, was approved.

Thus the Society chose to define neuroscience in the broadest terms as unbounded. The Council further articulated three major goals, which remain the core of the Society’s mission and again reflect the founders’ intentions to develop an interdisciplinary field, promote scientific work, and establish public support through emphasis on the importance and benefits of self-governing scientific research: “1) To advance understanding of nervous systems and their role in behavior; 2) To promote education in the neurosciences; 3) To inform the general public on results and implications of current research.”31

Based on these goals, the Council also began to define its priorities for the immediate future. These priorities reflected the Council’s definition of neuroscience as a field that spanned multiple traditional disciplines and, as such, would require an unusually diverse membership, new forums for communicating, and funding organizations (especially NIH) sympathetic to the expanded definition of neuroscience and the interdisciplinary methods necessary to address questions posed by this new cadre of neuroscientists. The Council also realized that federal funds would have to be justified through presentation of the future tangible social benefits of neuroscientific knowledge (e.g., the cure of diseases) made possible by improved understanding of the relationships between biology and behavior. Thus, the initial priorities for SfN were to secure the Society’s viability by building membership and attracting external funding; to build interdisciplinary ties through a dynamic annual meeting and a regular newsletter; to introduce neuroscience and its potential benefits to the government and the public through the media; and to build collaborative links with other organizations and institutions.

The Council had a strong belief that science flourished best within democratic organizations and it fashioned the Society’s governance after Western principles of democracy. This conviction was especially evident in the Council’s decisions regarding membership criteria and officer selection. The Council recognized that it needed not only to recruit a diverse cadre of scientists as members but also to assure them that all groups would have representation in Society governance and programs, and through the Society, a voice in public policy. Moreover, while established leaders in the various fields would be important in attracting funding and public interest, younger scientists, trained to think across disciplines, would over time contribute most to the scientific work and maintain the Society’s multidisciplinary character. As Perl later commented, he and others were “dismayed by the tendency of scientific societies to be governed by … a dynasty of older individuals who were no longer active in the laboratory and promoted one another for leadership positions.”32 The Society founders anticipated that more democratic policies would promote the fertile scientific collaborations and major public impact envisioned for the new organization.

Reflecting the above concerns, the questions that Council debated at its first formal meeting at the NAS building, on October 26, 1969, included: What disciplines and age groups should SfN recruit? What criteria should be established for nomination to the Council and admission to the Society? And how could the Society ensure a wide geographic representation? The minutes noted that “the younger potential members of the Society have expressed concern that membership should be determined democratically and in a manner to counteract any tendency toward stagnation of the Society. ‘Operators’ in peripheral professions or disciplines would perhaps be most likely to promote their self interest rather than the best interests of the neurosciences. Because the Society is promoting interdisciplinary interests among its members it was felt that even those known to have a narrow outlook should be included.”33

SfN was not unique in trying to fashion a democratic identity; the idea that scientific societies should reflect democratic values of openness and majority rule was a feature of many scientific institutions in the Cold War era, particularly in the US.34 But because the SfN founders were redrawing scientific boundaries to form a new discipline at the same time that they were establishing a new organization, a democratic approach was also the best way to ensure that neuroscience would remain an independent and open field. The early Council members deliberately established nominating procedures for Society offices that helped to ensure a democratic organization, specified that future leaders would be drawn from both biological and behavioral disciplines, and invited younger members, those under 45, to run for Council positions. The Council divided the United States into four geographic regions: Baltimore South, Philadelphia North, Pittsburgh Rocky Mountain, and West Coast. It also divided disciplines into two categories: neurobiological and behavioral, and left it to the next Council to “rectify any unbalance between biological and behavioral disciplines” in future elections.35 As Perl recalled in 1986, “Our wish was to attract to the new society investigators interested in the neural basis of behavior, but we wanted to insure that the new organization would be dominated by neither the behaviorally nor the biologically inclined.”36

These established needs and priorities — membership growth, financial support, promotion of interdisciplinarity, public information, and institutional collaboration — would shape activities for the next 25 years.

Endnotes

  1. Minutes, Committee on Brain Sciences No. 5, 15-16 June 1967, p. 4. UCLA-NHA.
  2. Letter from Sidney Ochs to Ralph W. Gerard, June 7, 1968, “Organization of Brain Scientists: 1st meeting 1967-1969” Folder, Louise Marshall Papers, UCLA-NHA.
  3. Robert Doty “Dear Colleague” letter, July 1969, “Organization of Brain Scientists: 1st Meeting 1967-1969” Folder, Marshall Papers, UCLA-NHA; Ed Perl, “Society for Neuroscience - A History of Beginnings.” NN 17:4, July/August 1986, p.1, 3-5, p. 1.
  4. Doty, “Neuroscience,” n. 13, p. 431.
  5. Perl, “A History,” n. 20, p. 3; Doty, “Neuroscience,” n. 13, p. 431.
  6. Letter from Ed Perl to Nancy Beang, May 30, 1995, SfN Archive.
  7. Perl,” A History,” n. 20, p. 3.
  8. Perl and Marshall later quibbled over minor details of this description, but their basic recollections are consistent. Letter from Louise Marshall to Stan Mims, March 21, 1995, “SfN – Early History – Schatz, Mims 1995” Folder, Marshall Papers, UCLA-NHA; Perl, “A History,” n. 20, p. 4 and Letter from Ed Perl to Nancy Beang, n. 23.
  9. Letter from Ralph W Gerard to Sidney Ochs, July 31. 1968, “Organization of Brain Scientists: 1st Meeting 1967-1969” Folder, Louise Marshall Papers, UCLA-NHA; Perl to Beang letter, n. 23, p. 4; Perl, “A History,” n. 20, p.4.
  10. Perl, “A History,” n. 20, p. 4.
  11. Hsieh, “The Founding of the Society for Neuroscience,” n. 9, p. 11; Letter from Victor Denenberg to LHM June 12, 1981, “Letter to CBS members re: Society for Neuroscience 1981” Folder; Louise Marshall History of Society for Neuroscience Notes October 14, 1984, and LHM’s account of NS history/autobiography [on reading the current issue of NS Newsletter] 11/21/94, “History of the Society for Neuroscience, 1968-1994” Folder, Marshall Papers, UCLA-NHA.
  12. Eliot Stellar to LHM April 3, 1981, “Letter to CBS members re: Society for Neuroscience 1981” Folder, Marshall Papers, UCLA-NHA.
  13. David Bodian to LHM April 1, 1981, “Letter to CBS members re: Society for Neuroscience 1981” Folder, Marshall Papers, UCLA-NHA.
  14. First Council Meeting Minutes, October 1969, SfN Archive.
  15. Edward R. Perl, in Larry R. Squire, ed., History of Neuroscience in Autobiography, vol. 3. Society for Neuroscience, 2001: pp. 399.
  16. First Council Meeting Minutes, October 1969, SfN Archive.
  17. See for example, Rena Selya, “Defending Scientific Freedom and Democracy: The Genetics Society of America's Response to Lysenko.” Journal of the History of Biology 45 (2012): 415-442.
  18. Second Council Meeting Minutes, January 22, 1970. SfN Archive.
  19. Ed Perl, “A History,” n. 20, p. 3.