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Michael Bennett

(Virginia & Balliol 1952) (7 January 1931 - 16 November 2023)

Michael Vander Laan Bennett was a world-renowned authority in the field of intercellular communication in the nervous system. His studies showed that electrical synapses play critical roles in connecting neurons, and are especially important in synchronizing inhibitory interneurons in the mammalian brain.

Bennett received his undergraduate degree in Zoology from Yale University, where he was a competitive gymnast and was mentored by the eminent embryologist John Trinkaus, who continued to impact Bennett’s research at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) many years later. He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University, where he obtained his D.Phil. degree from Balliol College in 1957. His doctoral dissertation focused on the functional organization of the mammalian cortex, and he was proud of his Oxford education, noting that both Sherrington and Eccles had studied there.

Bennett then joined Harry Grundfest’s lab at Columbia, attracted by Grundfest’s personality and intellect, and by the opportunity to use sharp intracellular electrodes to record from neurons and effector cells in a vast assortment of exotic invertebrates and fish species that had nervous systems specialized for activities requiring synchronized or rapid transmission.

Bennett’s initial studies focused on electroplaques that generated the shocks for which electric fish are named. However, he quickly became intrigued by the question of how the animals generate synchronized discharge and later studied how weak electric fields are sensed though their specialized receptors, the ampullae of Lorenzini. His interest in electric fish led to his participation in an expedition with Ted Bullock on the research vessel the Alpha Helix on the Amazon River and even studies on mummified Egyptian sacred fish together with an Egyptologist and running buddy, Bob Brier.

Read the full obituary here.