Campus professor, neuroscience pioneer Marian Diamond dies at 90

Neurologist and campus professor emerita Marian Diamond — who examined portions of Albert Einstein’s brain and discovered the brain’s ability to develop well into adulthood died July 25. She was 90.

During her career, Diamond made numerous breakthroughs in the field of neuroanatomy. She also achieved international fame after studying slices of Einstein’s brain and discovering it had a higher number of glial cells compared to the average brain, suggesting that these glial cells contributed to Einstein’s genius.

As one of the first prominent female scientists in the field of neuroanatomy, Diamond faced discrimination during her career, but continued to pursue her research.

“Integrative Biology is a male-dominated department that is not always a welcoming place for faculty who happen to be women. In that world, Prof. Diamond was a beacon for me. She was a fabulous scientist and she also fully embraced her femininity,” said campus integrative biology associate professor Leslea Hlusko in an email. “I deeply appreciate her willingness to buck the trend, to just be who she is, and to embrace life so fully.”

One of Diamond’s major breakthroughs in neuroanatomy was discovering the brain’s malleability. At the time of her discovery, scientists debated between whether the brain was affected by nature or nurture, most believing that the brain could not have significant structural changes in adulthood, according to campus psychology professor Robert Knight.

Diamond conducted an experiment in which she put rats in environments that were either isolated, had other rats or had other rats and toys to play with. She learned through her experiment that the isolated rats in less enriched environments had thinner cerebral cortices compared to their counterparts.

Her research inspired other neuroscientists to also study the neurobiological basis of learning, according to campus neurobiology professor Daniel Feldman.

“When Dr. Diamond began her research in the 1970s, it was thought that the brain was only capable of large-scale changes in its circuits and function during development, but that these became more or less fixed during adulthood,” Feldman said in an email. “Dr. Diamond showed that learning can produce robust changes in brain anatomy even in adults.”

She later published her findings in 1964 along with two other colleagues. In the beginning, however, people did not believe her findings and resisted the idea, according to Knight.

Knight said he believes that the reason for the outcry was twofold: first, because this was a shocking idea at the time, and second, in part, because Diamond was a woman.

There were very few senior women scientists when Marian Diamond began her career,” said campus neurobiology professor David Presti in an email.That she was making scientific claims that so opposed the mainstream dogma of her day was made especially difficult because these claims were coming from research done by a woman.”

As a professor, Diamond was a “brilliant lecturer” whose students “adored” her, according to Knight. She was notorious for carrying a preserved brain in a hatbox and bringing it to lectures and classes.

Presti described her as “engaging, kind, generous, interested in others, and wonderful to be around.”

“She was acknowledged to be a master teacher, she was acknowledged to be a pioneer in her field and she was acknowledged to be not just a scientist, but a master woman scientist,” campus integrative biology professor George Brooks said.

Contact Atira Nair at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @atirastar.