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Dr. Sanford Palay, 83; Innovative Neuroscientist

September 03, 2002|From a Times Staff Writer

Dr. Sanford L. Palay, a neuroscientist who helped explain how nerve cells work and how "messenger chemicals" get to the brain, has died. He was 83.

Palay died of kidney failure Aug. 5 in Concord, Mass.

In the 1970s, Palay and his wife at the time, Victoria Chan-Palay, did groundbreaking research on the cerebellum, the portion of the brain that coordinates physical movement. That seminal work helped explain the structures that dispense messenger chemicals and made the cerebellum one of the best understood parts of the brain. They detailed their research in a series of scientific papers and a textbook, "The Cerebellar Cortex."

Palay's individual research had begun to attract notice two decades earlier when he was working at Rockefeller University in New York. In 1953, he used what was then a new instrument, the electron microscope, to study the synaptic transmission of nerve impulses. His paper, "The Fine Structure of Neurons," and his subsequent research helped provide a detailed anatomy of nerve cells.

He also explored and explained the structure of cells that support and protect neurons.

Born to Russian immigrant laborers in Cleveland, Palay earned his undergraduate degree in English at Oberlin College and his medical degree from Case Western Reserve University. He became a generous donor to Oberlin, giving countless neuroscience journals to its library over the years.

In 1999, he donated a large collection of 20th century Western and Japanese prints, paintings and ceramics to the college's Allen Memorial Art Museum.

Perhaps more important, the same year he donated more than 1,000 histological slides of human brain tissue to the school's Neuroscience Department. The art-loving scientist described the slides as "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," he said in 1999. "It should help to make the internal architecture of the brain real for students of neuroscience."

Palay served in the Army Medical Corps during the postwar U.S. occupation of Japan. He then began his career teaching at Yale School of Medicine before joining Rockefeller University.

In the 1960s, he was chief of the neurocytology section at the National Institutes of Health, and from 1971 until his retirement in 1989, he taught neuroanatomy at Harvard Medical School.

The author of more than 100 scientific papers and eight books, Palay earned top awards from the American Assn. of Anatomists and the American Philosophical Society. He edited the Journal of Comparative Neurology for 13 years.

Palay is survived by two daughters, a brother and two grandchildren.

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