John Lisman (1944-2017)

Chair of Biology Piali Sengupta wrote:

It is with great sadness that I am writing to let you know that John Lisman passed away last night. He passed away peacefully surrounded by his family. John was an influential and creative scientist and a very good friend to all of us in Biology and Neuroscience. We are glad that we had the opportunity to honor him and hear from him at the Volen Retreat last week. He will be much missed.

John’s talk at the Volen Retreat earlier this month, delivered by video conference, is available here: The critical role of CaMKII in memory storage: 6 key physiological and behavioral tests

The family has asked that in lieu of flowers people consider contributing to the John Lisman Memorial Scholarship

Earlier tweets from past students and colleagues:

We also received this longer tribute from Michael Kahana:

I was greatly saddened to hear the news that John Lisman passed away this weekend. I spoke with him just a few weeks ago and was greatly looking forward to his upcoming visit to Penn. Although he told me of his illness, I was hoping to have a little more time with my good colleague and friend. Upon learning of his passing, I wanted to write down a few memories to share with friends and colleagues who knew John well.

I vividly recall when I first met John, at an evening gathering at his home that I attended just prior to joining the faculty at Brandeis (this may have been a precursor to the famous Boston Hippocampus meetings that John helped organize). The meeting was teaming with energy, and John welcomed me warmly, introducing me to other scientists in the room. John had recently become very interested in human memory, and as a newly minted PhD working on memory, John took me under his wings, teaching me about neurophysiology and quizzing me enthusiastically about the psychology of memory, a field that John was keen to master as quickly as possible.

John was a polymath, bursting with creative energy, and capable of seeing connections between diverse fields. Over the subsequent decade at Brandeis, John had an enormous influence on my career and research direction, introducing me to theta and gamma rhythms, and teaching me about countless topics in neurophysiology. On a typical day in the Volen Center, John would rush into my lab eager to share a new discovery or ask me a question about a study of memory that he had just learned about. He had this incredibly-infectious scientific curiosity, and he was always abundantly generous with his time, both with me and my students.

I particularly remember the early days when John was developing the LIJ (Lisman-Idiart-Jensen) model, and trying to learn as much as he could about the Sternberg task and other related phenomena in the field of human memory. Although I frequently challenged John on this front, he kept at it, continuing to refine the model together with Ole Jensen until they were able to answer many of the most serious objections. I just saw that the original paper was cited more than 1,200 times, and several of the follow up papers are well into the many hundreds of citations. This is arguably the most creative neurophysiological model of a cognitive function, and the best example of an attempt to link detailed physiological measurements to behavioral measures of human memory.

We have all lost a great friend, colleague, and mentor, and the field of neuroscience has lost one of its shining stars. I want to share my deepest sympathies with all of you who knew and loved John.

May his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Mike Kahana

Thomas Reese shared his thoughts:

John, your intellect and spirit lighted more than 30 summers my life at the MBL in Woods Hole.  You were a reference point for neurobiology there, holding court at your favorite table at the Kidd, at the far end of the dock.  A cherished invitation to lunch at exactly 12:00, with interesting synapse people passing though, or to hear a deluge of you new ideas about how a synapse is, or should be, put together.  Occasionally an invitation to dinner outside, behind your house with talk of many things…..joined by the delightful Natashia and other interesting people….discussing well into the night.

If Woods Hole is a little scientific Athens, you were our Socrates, lurking on Milfield. questioning in your disarming, open open way…bringing out the truth.  You were our Dogenes. searching Gardner Road for a man with the honest truth.

John, ,… will seem empty there without you…you
will be very much missed..Tom Reese.     NIH


  1. Nikolai Otmakhov says:

    Even after working with John for more than 20 years, I still find him the most unpredictable and mentally dynamic person I have ever met. His scientific range was enormous.

  2. Rachael Neve says:

    John was a pure researcher. He did research for the love of it. As recently as October 9, he wanted to know when the latest CaMKII mutant would be ready. John was not only an exceptional scientist, but he was one of the most interesting people that I’ve met. I could have listened to his stories for hours. One of his last emails to me, at the end of Sept, said that he would tell me his latest story over a beer. I’m sad that I’ll miss that story and many more.


  3. Roger Colbran says:

    I am so sad to hear this. John has been a great friend in the field for so many years, and a great champion of good science. I will miss our many chats about the nuances of CaMKII biochemistry, his many contributions to the field as well as his immense sense of quirky humor. My thoughts are with all his families, both personal and scientific.

  4. Dear John,
    I am so happy that you visited us just two weeks ago. Everyone was thrilled by your brave talk. The lunch discussion with you was the highlight of my week. We touched upon many topics, including your postdoc days in my hometown, Pecs, Hungary, spike propagation in networks and our tasks in our joint grant. You had so many plans! When I heard the sad news, I was speechless. Veronika and I will always remember the happy times we spent together with you and Natasha. You body is gone but episodic memories stay with us. We miss you but it is only a good excuse to remember you more. Your friend, gyuri

  5. George Augustine says:

    What a tremendous loss to all of us who care about neurons, synapses, circuits, rhythms, memory… well, pretty much anything having to do with how the brain works. John was an inspirational figure who reinforced the fundamental importance of big ideas in guiding our day-to-day experiments. Even while fighting his recent health battles, John remained fiercely committed to the pursuit of scientific excellence and, of course, to figuring out CaMKII. We will miss you, John!

    George Augustine

  6. Richard Kramer says:

    Such a great loss. John was a great friend and supporter. He was always eager to spar over scientific ideas, spanning everything from vision, to memory, to schizophrenia. I will miss joining him at his house in Woods Hole for the freshest possible squid over pasta. He was a welcoming host who treated all of his many visitors like part of his family.

  7. Miquel Bosch says:

    I admired John very much. I was always impressed by his ability to be a theorist of neuroscience. I asked him several times how he was able to understand so many fields and propose theories, ideas, experiments with such high value. His answer: well, I love reading and thinking.
    I enjoyed and learned so much whenever I talked to him and the members of his lab every time I visited him or he came to MIT. I’m glad I could spend some time with him early this year when he visited Barcelona.
    He was really a great guy and a huge scientist.
    My deepest condolences to all friends, family, members of the lab, and the neuroscience community.

  8. Gary Strichartz says:

    My life was brightened by John Lisman, whom I knew since 1972 when we were Grass Fellows at the MBL. His wonder at all things and his approach, to lead with a question that was an invitation to dialogue, to create together from the sea of ideas, that was a signal aspect of John’s intellect. And his sweetness and availability as a friend was another, equally important gift. Also, he was one of the most stimulating and enjoyable people to play “charades” with. So many good memories, of John and Natasha, emerge as I think of our lives. A blessing to us all.

  9. Ed Johnson says:

    John inspired me and more. He was a mentor from when I started my postdoc with him in 1984 where I learned single channel recording, then a friend, colleague and always a great inspiration. Through the years we always stayed in touch, having dinner at every home I had, West Virgiina, San Diego, Pennsylvania, and then he and Natasha visited us a year and a half ago in Stockholm… and the nice dinner a year ago in San Diego. And a little over a week ago we were inspired by the talk you gave from your ICU bed on the role of CaMKII in memory. John you nailed it! John, we all love you and will miss you so much. Hugs and more to Natasha, Nora and Aaron.

  10. Jean-Marc Fellous says:

    The first thing John asked me to do when I joined his lab as a postdoc, fresh out of my PhD, was to walk Exy, his dog, in the snow. All he gave me was a tennis ball. I was terrified. Not of the dog (who was the sweetest animal I had ever met), but of loosing her on the train tracks, or under a car! John was a trusting mentor, an outstanding scientist with an intellectual breadth and sharpness of thought second to none. I will miss him dearly. Rest in Peace John, with Exy, and thank you for all you have done. You will never been forgotten. Jean-Marc.

  11. Dan Johnston says:

    Words cannot express the sorry and loss I feel with the passing of John Lisman. He was a great friend and colleague for so many years. He was responsible for bringing me to the MBL in the late ‘80s for my first summer of research. This led to many summer research projects (and many papers) together. We have three of his murals hanging in our Center, which will be a reminder to us of his many talents. During a visit to Austin, he wanted to have Texas BBQ. We took him to what turned out to be a rather seedy place, but of course John loved it! I have so many great memories with John, which I will cherish always. He was a great inspiration to me both personally and scientifically.

  12. Marco Idiart says:

    I have known John for over 20 years. He was a constant source of inspiration as a man, a friend, and as an academic to all those around him. In these last days there were many beautiful manifestations from friends and colleagues honoring his memory and the one that touched me the most was the expression “Renascence idea-man”. This was John. He was a polymath and he liked to think and make theories about things even from fields very far from his immediate expertise. Last winter my wife and I spent a wonderful time with him in Boston discussing how the brain produces language. We will always remember the wonderful combination of science, good food, art and the warm atmosphere of conviviality that John would so naturally build around him. We are deeply saddened and will miss him very much.

    Marco Idiart and Aline Villavicencio

  13. Licurgo de Almeida says:

    I have many wonderful memories of my time working with John, both as grad student and post-doc. I remember working late night on our papers with Marco. But it’s interesting that I most remember laughing and having fun. I remember going on bike rides in Woodshole and stopping by Captain Kidd to have lunch, where we would sit on his favorite table (the one he wrote his name under).
    I remember the mind that would never stop, the phone calls Sunday morning to talk about Figure X in the manuscript Y, the most recent theory about something and the unmatched passion for science.
    John was a father figure to me during a difficult period in my life and I would never forget that. Above all, John was, in my view, the definition of a scientist or what a scientist should aspire to be.

  14. Laura Colgin says:

    John’s papers, and the hypotheses he put forth, galvanized me in the 90s (I still have the hard copies of the Learning and Memory and Hippocampus issues in my office- my first exposure to his work). After reading those papers, I obsessed and dreamed about theta, gamma, and memory- based on his ideas. I don’t know what I would be doing today without those papers- my lab is now based around the role of theta-modulated gamma rhythms in memory processing. I have many happy memories of talking science with him and am very sad that I won’t be able to do so again. Thank you for everything, and rest in peace, John. We all miss you already.

  15. Chong-Hyun Kim says:

    John, you have been the great mentor…the most insightful person I have ever met.
    I and my family will miss you and thank you for all those times and experiences I shared with you.

  16. Ole Jensen says:

    John’s passing has been a big shock. John was my scientific father and has shaped my scientific thinking and career in every way. Back in 1995 he took me under his wing and trained me as a neuroscientist. I had started a PhD in Physical Chemistry at Brandeis University with little knowledge on neuroscience but John still gave me a chance to enter his scientific universe. Later I learned that John only had one single criterion for selecting people to work with; anyone willing to engage in fundamental discussions on the mysteries on neuroscience. Only one thing could offend him: superficial thinking and intellectual laziness.

    The same year he published the paper ” Storage of 7 +/- 2 short-term memories in oscillatory subcycles” with Marco Idiart in Science. Their paper was the first proposing a mechanistic idea on working memory based on cross-frequency coupling between theta and gamma oscillations. Back then – being new to science – I did not yet understand how remarkable the contribution was. I found it perfectly natural that an animal physiologist gets inspired to propose an idea on human memory, develops a hypothesis, and publishes it in the journal Science. Next you get a grant to start the empirical testing to prove or disprove the idea. I later learned the hard way that the scientific process is not that simple… The landmark paper illustrates John’s approach. He was blessed with a certain ‘shamelessness’ not respecting any conventional scientific boundaries. This is exactly the courage needed by a true genius in order to synthesize truly novel idea.

    I badly miss John. We have kept working together and we had our last discussion just a few weeks ago. Even these days when writing papers and grants, I have this inner voice “What would John think?”. Helps to keep me sharp. John was in every way my scientific compass and I owe him everything.

  17. Paul F Bloom says:

    Here’s a note I sent to John and my undergraduate Brandeiss ’66 classmates, and a photo:


    So sad to get the note from Michael.

    I wanted to add a brief remembrance and a photo. John and I were never really close, but always had a strong friendship connection that would burst out full blown whenever we met. He only made a brief appearance at the 2016 Reunion, as I recall, but in 2001 he and I spent a long and wonderful afternoon together, along with my wife Millie. Natasha was out of town. John took us through his lab and then to his lovely home, high in an apartment tower overlooking downtown Boston. We had always had some personal issues that we walked through together, along with a passion for photography, following what Michael said. I don’t remember how my work came up– probably that I was shooting lots of photos that weekend– but John shared his portraits that I had heard about but never seen. Wonderful.

    I don’t see him as gone, an emotion I’ve had around my half-sister and others these last few years, echoing Michael’s words about this time in our life, something my mom would often say in her later years.

    I believe the photo is John in his lab office, Spring 2001. It may be his home office, but I don’t think so.


    Much love- Paul

    (can’t figure out how to post photo)

  18. Marian Lubinsky says:

    I was a classmate of John’s – Brandeis ’66. I know he has done many impressive things since graduation – but I remember him as a very nice person, a real mensch.

  19. Xiaobing Chen says:

    I am deeply saddened by the sudden passing of John, it is such an unexpected news I still can not reconcile it with reality. This brought back memories of many interactions I had with John over the years in Woods Hole, NIH and at some meetings, he had so many great ideas and insights and he cared deeply about the structure and function of the PSD, it has always been inspiring to talk to him. His loss leaves a void that can not be filled.

  20. Alan Anticevic says:

    John Lisman has been an intellectual hero of mine and a remarkably important influence on my career and life. I distinctly remember, as a first year graduate student, learning about rhythms in the brain from his elegant writing. I have never truly developed a deep intuition for how neural oscillations are generated until I was gently but precisely walked through the ideas in one of John’s papers.

    Years later I had a distinct privilege of getting to know John personally while developing a scientific collaboration. As evident by many remarks here, John has generated a remarkably positive and impactful impression on countless careers and lives. He always took the time to engage ideas, debate, teach and, most importantly, provide a unique sense of care and authenticity for the people around him.

    John gave me advice over dinner I cary to this day. He sharpened my thinking. He challenged me. His sense of excitement, optimism and irreverent humor was contagious. I was lucky enough to see him a few weeks back at Woods Hole for a day of scientific discussions with friends and colleagues. As we parted ways, he sharply remarked: “We have unfinished business!”, referring to our numerous debates about the origins of psychosis. His energy, commitment, curiosity and drive to understand the human brain was unique and unrelenting.

    As others here, I will miss him deeply.


  21. Maxwell Hamilton says:

    One of the most uncommon and special things about John is the faith he placed in young people. After only one year in his lab, I feel as if I have been given opportunities to do and learn things that would have otherwise been considered out of my reach. All of the young people in our lab tell some version of the same story of how John gave them both the chance and the push to accomplish something special.

  22. Ayse Dosemeci says:

    Dear John
    Fond memories of you will persist
    All made of cam-kinase-two

  23. Jay Pepose says:

    I am very saddened to learn of John’s passing. When I was an undergraduate student at Brandeis, Attila Klein told me that John was going to be joining the faculty in a few months. I was very excited and contacted him and asked if I could do research with him. He sent me some articles and books to read ahead of time and I helped him set up his lab. I remember his first test for me in deciding whether I could join his group was that he made a few black box circuits and gave them to me with an oscilloscope. John told me I needed to draw the circuits in each box without opening them by using pulses from the oscilloscope. I don’t know if I got it right or if he just took pity on me, but I became John (and his dog, Putnik’s) first student at Brandeis. John taught me how to conduct research, the scientific method, how to write and publish a manuscript and how to deliver a scientific paper. His inquisitiveness was infectious. I wrote and published my first paper with him in the Journal of General Physiology in 1975 and gave my first scientific talk at ARVO. Two hundred papers later, I guess John taught me well. We remained lifelong friends and colleagues and I was very pleased that he headed the search committee and that he and Natasha hosted the receptions for the Vision lecture each year at Brandeis that Susan and I endowed at Brandeis through the Lifelong Vision Foundation. I plan to have the lecture renamed the John Lisman Vision Science Lecture as a fitting tribute to John and all that he gave me. He guided me in the lab and really gave me my first break by believing in me. He will be sorely missed.
    The photo attached is with John and William Newsome from Stanford at the 6th Annual Vision Science lecture. My deepest sympathy to Natasha, their children and the Lisman family.
    Jay Pepose
    St. Louis, Missouri

  24. Reid Leonard. says:

    John was a generous and attentive mentor to me as his undergrad research student 1978-1980.

    We had tremendous fun in the lab and published a nice paper that provided the launchpad for my career. I also learned how to solder, eventually, to his high standard – and the value of scrounging used lab equipment!

    He is and will always be a part of me. I look forward to seeing old friends here today at the Celebration of his life on campus.


  25. Marco Idiart says:

    Beautiful Ceremony.
    A kaleidoscope of memories that magically brought
    John back once again with his many facets of man, artist
    and scientist.
    I watched it from Brazil but my heart is was in Brandeis.

  26. I first met John while postdoc’ing with Eve and was fortunate to have hosted him as a distinguished speaker a few times in Toronto.

    I have a distinct memory of John telling me “welcome to the black hole!” when I told him that I was now doing modeling in the hippocampus – this worried me a bit at the time, especially since my husband is an astrophysicist, but I have stuck with the hippocampus so far. This was great because the subsequent overlap led to me getting to know John and his work more than I might have otherwise. I was able to benefit from the depth of his knowledge and have discussions about ‘bistability’ modeling in his work…

    Reading the comments and watching the memorial service have been lovely to appreciate the type of whole person he was and how lucky I am to have had a chance to interact with him.

    Thank you.

  27. Pato Huerta says:

    It has been a week since John’s passing and I have been so terribly sad all these days. John defines the way I think about science and the way I approach every experiment. I met him when he visited Chile in the late 1980s and he invited me to be a graduate student in his lab. To my utter surprise, he allowed me to work on my crazy idea about linking theta rhythm with LTP. We produced a nice piece of work that laid the foundation for some many studies on temporal coding. I am sure all of us will continue cherishing the memories of every moment we spent with John, his passion for science and a more just society for the common good. My heart goes to Natasha, Nora and Aaron.
    ~Pato Huerta

  28. Nelson Spruston says:

    John was a great colleague and friend. We had many long, passionate conversations. His way of thinking was very influential for me and I know many others who feel the same way. I saw him twice in the last year, and despite his illness, his energy and enthusiasm for science was still palpable. His work will have a long-lasting impact on the field and his legacy will be amplified by the positive influence he has had on scores of colleagues and students. Rest in peace.

  29. Bill Ross says:

    John was my friend for over forty years. We first met in Woods Hole when he was working on Limulus photoreceptors and I was working on barnacle photoreceptors. But we really hit it off as friends. Science always came first because he was a committed scientist – and he pulled me along. But we shared a certain ironic spirit that we both enjoyed. Our children were about the same age, and family activities cemented our friendship. In the past few years we became particularly close.
    There are two things about John that were outstanding to me – and these were touched on by others. The first was his inclusiveness as a scientist. He always had ideas and he wanted to share them. He would convene impromptu meetings of all sizes to discuss issues (often about some aspect of LTP or CamkII, of course) and some of these would lead to collaborations.
    The second was his artistic temperament. He like photography and his website of photo portraits of scientists is famous. His macro images of parts of the brain decorate several laboratories around the country. His everyday activities often had some creative aspect to them that gave flavor to the life around him.
    He was a free spirit in the sense that there was no boundary to the kinds of things he would think about. But more than that, he tried and often succeeded in making a contribution to each of these endeavors.
    I will miss him.

  30. Hiro, Miyakawa says:

    It was a sad surprise to hear John passed away. John was a good thinker. John’s rather provocative ideas, such as CaMKII/NMDAR/LTP and nesting theta/gamma, have been inspiring my research. John’s idea of having an expert of hippocampus (Dan Johnston) and Ca imaging (Bill Ross) work together brought me, ex-postdoc of Bill, from Japan to Woods Hole. Over the years I spent summers there, I used to hear him say “what would be the most stupid idea on this”.
    One day when I was having early breakfast on a bench in front of Lily building of MBL, John, who was in charge of drafting the manuscript, came saying “Help me Hiro. I don’t know what to do with the manuscript. I couldn’t sleep.” As I remember, I replied “we can say just what we saw. I think we saw such and such which mean this and that”. After a while we heard a voice saying “I think so too” from behind. Bill was there pushing his bicycle wearing a helmet. One of my best memory of life.
    I thank you, John. Rest in peace.

  31. I have known John since the Spring of 1986. The reason I know this date so explicitly, is because that was the only time that I accompanied my husband Max Snodderly to the Vision Meeting in Sarasota, FL. The only reason I attended that meeting was because my son was 6 months old and I was afraid to stay home alone with him-I needed Max at my side so I wouldn’t make any big mistakes in caring for our son — really!

    Well, during that trip, I was mostly a spouse sitting on the beach under a cabana with our 6 month old son, or hanging out in the hotel. One day, while enjoying the beach, I noticed this rather large man lumbering down the beach towards our cabana. Somehow the intent in his walk made me feel secure that I was not in danger. It was John Lisman, heading towards my little blue cabana. When he arrived, he plopped himself down in the sand, and said “Are you the ‘spiny lady’, Kristen Harris? — I was baffled that he would already know about my work — as the first few papers had barely come out, and honored that he found them interesting.

    So began a dialogue about dendritic spines that has lasted my entire academic career. In fact, a few days before the recent Brandeis CamKII symposium and John’s untimely passing, John and I had exchanged a series of emails where he accused me of being ‘coy’ because I wasn’t ready to share some, as yet unpublished data, because the analysis was incomplete and I only had 2 hours to work before I had to leave for a pedicure appointment. I have been sorry, of course, that I did not share that data immediately, as I am quite sure John would have offered insight…

    This story emphasizes not only John’s own great contributions to science, but his insatiable appetite for understanding other people’s work.

    His daughter Nora, at the celebration of John’s life, relates how John would start his day at 1-2 a.m. reading over a cup of tea.

    A couple years ago, when John visited Austin, he stayed with Max and me — and we too experienced John’s early morning awakening — as he began the morning session, devouring a stack of papers he had brought with him.. By 8:30 am he was cat-napping on my office couch in preparation for his own fantastic talk at UT-Austin.

    There is so much to share about John, but one thing that keeps coming to my mind is the many visits with him at the MBL — where he would share his enthusiasm and synthesis of the latest literature over breakfast, lunch, and often dinner as well — Natasha and he often welcomed me to their wonderful home at MBL.

    I once asked John how it was that he could so happily read so much of the scientific literature… His response:
    “Oh, it is like a child waking up each morning and finding himself in a candy store — I just love science!! and the stories scientists tell.”

    Today, I finally had the energy after mourning privately, and on my own facebook (in the ether as Natasha says) for a couple weeks now, to watch this beautiful celebration of John’s life and to hear his final talk on CaMKII .

    I miss you John, but know that you are remembered — I believe it is in the memories of others that we live on as well as through the genes we pass on… you John have succeeded wonderfully in both — creating our field’s wonderful memories and producing such wonderful offspring, both biological and scientific. I too hope there is a consciousness that exists beyond our physical life, but even if not, know that the memories persist.

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