Campus professor emeritus of neurobiology Walter Jackson Freeman III dies at 89

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UC Berkeley professor emeritus of neurobiology Walter Jackson Freeman III, remembered for his innovation and unyielding open-mindedness, died April 24 in his Berkeley home. He was 89.

Freeman, who was born on Jan. 30, 1927 in Washington D.C., studied a variety of fields during his undergraduate years, including physics, English, philosophy and electronics. He will likely be most remembered, however, for his contributions to the field now known as neuroscience.

According to David Presti, campus professor of neurobiology, Freeman was among the first UC Berkeley faculty to actively pursue neuroscience when he arrived on campus in 1959. Freeman took on the difficult task of investigating and conceptualizing how millions of neurons operate together to dictate human behavior, Presti said.

Presti added that in the 1980s, at a time when undergraduate education in neuroscience was restricted to lectures in physiology or psychology, Freeman developed a semester-long introductory neuroscience course, which Presti currently teaches.

“I was honored and delighted to assume the teaching of the undergraduate neuroscience class he created and contribute to carrying the tradition forward,” Presti said in an email.

Leslie Kay, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, is a former graduate student of Freeman’s. She said she was attracted to Freeman’s lab when she noticed the books on his shelf — all of which were related to philosophy, the focus of Kay’s undergraduate studies.

“He drew his inspiration from any field that gave provided him insight,” Kay said. “He emphasized this idea of studying brains without closing yourself off to any other field that might be relevant.”

Kay emphasized that Freeman’s open-mindedness translated to his life and presence outside the lab. According to Kay, Freeman loved to dance and had an unforgettable passion for life.

“The image from years ago that everyone has is of him walking and talking around campus with his hat and his cigar,” Kay said. “He liked to talk about everything; he enjoyed everything.”

According to Robert Kozma, a professor of mathematical sciences at the University of Memphis and a former researcher in Freeman’s lab, Freeman was always at the “forefront of neuroscience” and “ahead of the mainstream.”

Kozma — whose focus was primarily on mathematics and physics as opposed to neuroscience — said Freeman was very receptive to his ideas despite their differing academic backgrounds.

“He was of a much higher authority in science than me, but he always treated me as an equal,” Kozma said. “He was inquiring, he wanted to learn (and) he always let people come up with ideas.”

Freeman was preceded in death by his wife, Doreliesje “Do” Freeman. He is survived by his first wife Maribelle Zechlin, seven children, five stepchildren and 18 grandchildren.

Contact Harini Shyamsundar at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @hshyamsundar.