Skip to content Skip to navigation

Neurobiologist and vision expert Denis Baylor dies at 82

Denis Baylor golfing

Denis Baylor in Kapalua, Maui. He became an avid golfer after retirement.

Eileen Baylor

By Genevieve Bookwalter

Denis Baylor, MD, a professor of neurobiology who explained how the human eye converts light into electrical signals that the nervous system can read, died March 16 following a heart attack at the Stanford Golf Course. He was 82.

“Denis was a neurobiologist extraordinaire,” said William Newsome, professor of neurobiology, the Harman Family Provostial Professor and the Vincent V.C. Woo Director of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute.

Baylor’s research established the specific biological basis that modern color technology — including TVs, printers and LCD screens — relies on. “These technologies depend on knowing how the human eye absorbs, reacts to and processes color,” Newsome said. Baylor “was just trying to solve a fundamental problem about nature, and that’s the way the best scientists are motivated,” he added.

In 1977, Baylor’s lab pioneered a technique for examining the function of individual retinal cells — the rods and cones. It was more sensitive than other methods of the time because it could measure sensitivity to all the wavelengths in the visible part of the spectrum rather than simply measuring whether light is absorbed by the cell.

“Denis Baylor’s truly trailblazing research provided insights and answers related to a fundamental question in neurobiology: How does the eye allow us to see?” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “Moreover, he was a profoundly dedicated teacher who delivered engaging lectures and worked tirelessly to uplift his students.”

Carla Shatz, PhD, professor of biology and neurobiology, the Catherine Johnson Holman Director of Stanford Bio-X, and the Sapp Family Provostial Professor, called her 1991 collaboration with Baylor “one of the most rewarding and exciting experiences of my entire scientific career.” Their work led to the discovery of spontaneous wave activity in the developing mammalian retina.

“Denis was a superb mentor and collaborator,” said Lubert Stryer, MD, professor of neurobiology, emeritus. “Many outstanding vision scientists spent their formative years in association with him and were inspired by his creativity, rigor, insight and generosity of spirit.”