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In memory of John Nicholls

25 July 2023
A memory of John Nicholls on behalf of the Neuroscience Area

SISSA mourns the loss of Professor John Nicholls – neuroscientist, colleague, mentor, advisor, and friend – who passed away on July 13, 2023. John Nicholls came to SISSA in 1998, having already earned recognition for a series of fundamental research lines in neurobiology, and gave our university over 20 years of scientific expertise, teaching, wisdom, and friendship. His groundbreaking research on glial cell function, circuitry of the leech nervous system, neural regeneration, and much more was recognized by election as Fellow of the Royal Society and by numerous prestigious honors, prizes, and medals.

Nicholls studied medicine in the 1950s at King’s College, earned his degree at Charing Cross Hospital, and practiced clinical medicine for two years. In 1955 he earned a PhD under Bernard Katz (Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1970) at University College London. Nicholls did postdoctoral work at University College London, Oxford, and Harvard, the latter with Stephen Kuffler. He accepted a professorship at Yale University in 1965 but returned to Harvard in 1968, joining the world’s first Department of Neurobiology. After tenures at Stanford University (1973-1983) and the Biozentrum of Basel University (1983-1998), Nicholls moved to SISSA. 

At SISSA, Nicholls continued laboratory work until around 2010, and established an introductory doctoral course in neurobiology. The classroom meetings, as well as the smaller, free-form meetings, where students discussed their ongoing doctoral research, were treasured by students year after year. Nicholls was passionate about teaching, and his efforts were never limited to his home institution. From 1994-2002 he ran the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) Visiting Lecturer Program, bringing neuroscience to parts of the world lacking in resources. By the time Nicholls passed the program to the next director in 2002, it had reached over 1000 students through 21 courses held in 18 different countries. In 2003 IBRO named a fellowship in his honor.

Nicholls was a prolific author, both of scientific articles and of works for students and a general readership. The first edition of From Neuron to Brain (Sinauer), written with Stephen Kuffler, was published in 1976 and this popular textbook has been updated through the sixth edition (2021). 

SISSA joins countless collaborators, former students, and friends distributed across every continent in honoring the memory of John Graham Nicholls.