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Excerpts of a Letter from Sanford Palay '40 to Mark Braford, Professor of Biology



April 2, 1999

Dear Mark,

. . .

When I was a student in Oberlin, I took a course in Psychology, hoping to learn something about the brain and how it works. But the professor then head of the Department (Stetson) was a strict behaviorist and could not be less interested in any subject than in the workings of the brain, which he thought were irrelevant to any understanding of behavior. When I participated in the dedication of the Neuroscience Building (you remember collecting me at the airport), I learned that the Department actually taught neuroanatomy, and I was pleased that you and your wife [Editor's Note: Mark Braford's wife is Catherine McCormick, professor of biology] were doing comparative neuroanatomy research.

. . .

Now, the slides. The collection contains three complete series of Loyez-stained sections of human brains, one in each of the cardinal planes, frontal (or transverse), sagittal, and horizontal. The Loyez stain is a variation of the Weigert method, staining for myelin sheaths, generally. These sections were made from apparently human brains, embedded in celloidin, and sectioned serially at 100-micron thickness. The sections included are every tenth section in the series, numbered accordingly. . . .

You should be aware that the sagittal series was used by Yakovlev and Angevine to illustrate their book on the Human Brain in Sagittal Sections. . . .

The frontal series, interestingly, are the most useful for teaching. They were given to me by Prof. Yakovlev and stained and mounted in my laboratory by the entire teaching team and our lab technicians in a marathon session lasting three weeks or so. They were used for teaching Harvard medical students for two decades, until curricular changes made it impractical to use original sections. My laboratory photographer, Howard Cook, photographed every section in all three series onto 3 x 4 inch color film; these slides are included in the boxes you received. . . . These photographs are incredibly faithful to the originals. If you put a photograph under the dissecting microscope, you can trace single myelinated fibers from section to section. I gave a selection of the frontal series photographs to Prof. Wally Nauta so that he could use them in his lectures at MIT. He reproduced a further selection of them with detailed descriptions in his book with Feirtag on human neuroanatomy.

When it became too inconvenient to cart around 3 x 4 inch slides to lectures and often impossible to find a corresponding lantern slide projector when I took them out of town (I remember once, in Italy, carting the projector from the laboratory of a friend in Milan to a conference in Bellagio, where I was to give a talk), I had Mr. Cook transfer all of the photographs to 2 x 2 inch slides so that they would fit into the more prevalent carousel projectors. These slides are enclosed. . . . You may also find them most useful for teaching sessions. . . . As it is very unlikely that [the original slides] can ever be done again, they are a precious resource that should be conserved as if they were art objects from the Renaissance.

I am happy that this collection has found a home in Oberlin. It should help to make the internal architecture of the brain real for students of neuroscience, and it should assist in recruiting at least a few neuroanatomists or dedicated neuroscientists among Oberlin graduates.

With all my best wishes.




Sanford L. Palay, M.D.

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