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Subject: Sanford L. Palay, Innovator in Neuroscience

Dies at 83
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Date Posted: September 02, 2002 5:57:28 EDT

Dr. Sanford L. Palay, a neuroscientist who helped uncover the detailed anatomy of the nerve cell and obtained the first images of the synapse and the structures that release messenger chemicals in the brain, died Aug. 5 at a hospital in Concord, Mass. He was 83.

The cause was kidney failure, a family member said.

In 1953, while conducting research at Rockefeller University in New York, Dr. Palay used the recently invented electron microscope to study the synaptic vesicles that transmit nerve impulses. His paper "The Fine Structure of Neurons" and his later research helped change thinking on nerve functions.

As chief of the neurocytology section at the National Institutes of Health in the early 1960's, Dr. Palay published several papers that described the structure of cells that support and protect neurons, called neuroglia.

He left the institutes to become a professor of neuroanatomy at Harvard Medical School, where he worked until retiring in 1989.

In the mid-70's, Dr. Palay and Victoria Chan-Palay, whom he met at Harvard and married in 1970, did seminal research on the part of the brain that controls coordinated movement, the cerebellum. Together, they published a series of papers and later a textbook, "The Cerebellar Cortex," which helped make the cerebellum one of the most clearly understood systems in the mammalian brain.

Dr. Palay and his wife later divorced.

Born in Cleveland, Sanford Louis Palay earned his undergraduate degree from Oberlin College and his medical degree from Case Western Reserve University. In the mid-40's, he served in the Army Medical Corps during the postwar occupation of Japan. He briefly taught at the Yale School of Medicine before joining Rockefeller University in 1953.

He was editor in chief of The Journal of Comparative Neurology for 13 years and was on the editorial board of several other scientific journals. In 1996, Comparative Neurology published an issue dedicated to Dr. Palay's career and, breaking with the tradition of running a photograph related to a scientific finding on its cover, used his picture instead.

"We like the thought of his scholarly presence inhabiting the libraries of the world," the journal's editors explained.

Dr. Palay was the author or co-author of more than 100 scientific articles and eight books. He won many awards, including the American Association of Anatomists' highest honor in 1990 and an award from the American Philosophical Society in 1991.

In addition to his former wife, who lives in New York, he is survived by two daughters, Victoria Palay of Winchester, Mass., and Rebecca Palay of Concord, Mass.; a brother, Donald, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and two grandchildren.

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