Peter Orlebar Bishop: The Engineer of Visual Science: 1917-2012
The young Peter Bishop wanted to be an engineer. Although he was deflected into medicine by various factors, such as WWII where he served as surgeon lieutenant in the navy, he constructed much of his own research equipment, which bore the unmistakable stamp and extraordinary precision of his engineering talent. All his early papers concerned the design of equipment rather than the quantitative neurophysiological data for which he became famous.
Laser Accuracy of Lab. Construction: An apocryphal engineering story about Peter that must be true concerns the series of adjacent laboratories he built on moving to the John Curtin School of Medical Research in 1968. It was said that a laser beam shone through the nodal point of the Right eye of a cat in Lab A would also pass precisely through the nodal points of the Right eyes of each of the other cats in Labs B,C, &D!
Inspiration for Brain Research:
Peter became passionate about brain research as a student when he was holding a human brain in his hands for the first time. He was struck by the fact that this relatively small, unassuming structure was somehow responsible for human hopes, aspirations, thoughts, emotions and memories. He subsequently devoted his life to the study of the brain.
Brain Research Beginnings:
"Brain Research Unit" was engraved in gold-leaf on a door in a picturesque sandstone archway at the University of Sydney's Old Medical School when Peter headed up the Physiology Department there after WWII and set up the laboratory. Here he engineered, to continue that theme, an extraordinary research environment whose quantitative features and protection from bureaucrats were ideally suited to nurture the careers of young brain researchers. He believed in creating an ideal research environment, free from petty hassles, and would leave researchers to do their best within.
Formula for productive Staff;
This appreciation of the importance of personal autonomy was one of Peter's gifts to his staff, who will testify to the beneficial effect that it had upon their well being and research productivity. I found my own metier in such an environment and made a number of research findings as an undergraduate that resulted in half a dozen publications, still highly cited.
There is an endless list of the contributions that resulted from Peter's research environment, but to select a few:-
Heinz Wassle's successful identification of physiological Y-cells with anatomical Alpha-cells, helped by Peter's high-tech fundus camera:
Bill Levick and Brian Cleland's extraordinary combination of vision with neurophysiology of input-output synaptic connection in the LGN:
Hughes' terrain theory of the retina:
Ken Sanderson's widely-used LGN map:
Bogdan Dreher's demotion of "hypercomplex" to end-stopped:
the addition of a third physiological class of retinal ganglion cells (W-cells) to the X and Y cells by Hans-Peter Hoffmann and Jonathan Stone.
Peter was one of the first in the world to equip his labs with Radiation-industry averagers that had been modified so that they could generate post-stimulus time histograms. This enabled quantitation of neuronal responses that was an essential step in some studies, such as comparing monocular and binocular single neuron responses, for example. Without this quantitative assistance the stochastic firing pattern would make it difficult to compare stimulus conditions at different times and different monocular or binocular conditions. In fact it was this quantitative approach that led to Peter's discovery of stereo-processing by visual cortical neurons that had been overlooked by Nobel Laureates, Torsten Wiesel and David Hubel.
The Gullstrand of the Cat Eye:
If he could not be an engineer, Peter thought he might be the "Gullstrand of the cat eye", after the Nobel Laureate who first developed a schematic for the human eye that allowed calculations of its optical properties. Peter's schematic cat eye proved just as precise and detailed as Gullstrand's human schematic and became an essential foundation for the mountain of papers that Peter produced on the visual pathways of the cat.
As already mentioned Peter had a successful formula for nurturing young researchers by giving them autonomy within a supremely equipment environment that has been freed of bureaucratic interference. One measure of its success is the 23 full professors around the world that he trained.
St. Lucia, June 2012
23 total professors