W. Maxwell Cowan, 1931-2002, Former Chief Scientific Officer at HHMI

Dr. W. Maxwell Cowan

Dr. W. Maxwell Cowan, former vice president and chief scientific officer of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a world-renowned neurobiologist, died on June 30 after a long illness. He was 70.

Dr. Cowan, who served the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) from 1987 until his retirement in 2000, played an extraordinary role in defining HHMIs biomedical research program. An outstanding neuroscientist, Dr. Cowan set the program's high scientific standards, identified promising new areas of research, and took a personal interest in identifying scientists around the country whose work merited support from HHMI.

HHMI is a medical research organization that enters into long-term collaboration agreements with universities and other academic research organizations, where its investigators hold faculty appointments. Under Dr. Cowans guidance, the HHMI research program more than doubled in size and made many important contributions to understanding fundamental questions in biology.

After retiring from HHMI, Dr. Cowan joined the faculty of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas as a distinguished adjunct professor in the Center for Neuroscience and department of neurology. He was also adjunct distinguished professor of neuroscience at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

A native of South Africa, Dr. Cowan immigrated with his family to the United States in 1966. In the field of neurobiology, Dr. Cowan was best known for discovering that during the development of the brain, considerable numbers of nerve cells die and many pathways are reorganized by the elimination of particular branches of axons. He showed that these two phenomena are widespread in the developing nervous system and together play a key role in refining the brains initial connections.

Dr. Cowan attended the University of the Witwatersrand, where he graduated with honors in 1952. He then went to England, where he received his Ph.D. in 1956 and his M.D. in 1958, both from Oxford University. He was on the faculty of Oxford from 1953 until 1964.

In 1965, Dr. Cowan spent a sabbatical year at Washington University, after which he joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine. In 1968, he returned to Washington University as professor and chairman of the department of anatomy and neurobiology.

Dr. Cowan moved to The Salk Institute in 1980 as director of the developmental neurobiology laboratory and shortly thereafter was appointed vice president. In 1986, he became provost and executive vice chancellor of Washington University. He left Washington University in 1987 to join HHMI.

Dr. Cowan was a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences, a member of the Institute of Medicine and a fellow of the Royal Society of Great Britain. In 1992, Dr. Cowan began a long association with the Charles A. Dana Foundation. He was a founding member and vice-chairman of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, a non-profit organization of more than 200 scientists who are dedicated to improving public knowledge of brain research. Dr. Cowan renewed his relationship with The Salk Institute as a distinguished professor in April 2000.

Dr. Cowan is survived by his wife, Margaret, of Rockville, Md., a daughter, Margaret Ruth Cowan, of Seaford, England; and two sons, Steven, of St. Louis, Mo., and David, of San Diego, Calif., and two grandchildren.

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Jim Keeley 301.215.8858