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Neuroscientist Aryeh Routtenberg Dies at 76

The dedicated scientist left a legacy of cutting-edge research on learning and the brain
  • Was valued by his fellow scientists for his insights and perspectives
  • Educated many undergraduate, graduate students now influential in the field of neuroscience
  • Routtenberg ‘loved neuroscience both as a discipline and as a way of life’

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Aryeh Routtenberg, a longtime professor of psychology and neurobiology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University, died Feb. 27 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. He was 76. 

Routtenberg, who studied the molecular basis of memory, also was professor of physiology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. He began his career at Northwestern in 1965. He rose through the ranks and remained at the University his entire 50-year career.

Early in his career, Routtenberg published a pair of influential, ground-breaking papers in Psychology Review.

These papers demonstrated, early on, in the formation of the new field called neuroscience, that comprehensive theories of memory could promote substantial progress in the field.

Routtenberg’s research interests included learning and neural plasticity, and much of his work was devoted to understanding how the nervous system stores long-term memories. He was responsible for educating a generation of undergraduate and graduate students who have gone on to teach and conduct research in the field of neuroscience.

“Working in animal neural systems, Professor Routtenberg made important contributions in several areas pertaining to neural control of behavior and memory, some of his papers being cited more than 1,000 times,” said Mark Beeman, chair of psychology at Northwestern. “He was a dedicated scientist and an exacting mentor who pushed his graduate students to become independent scientists, and he allowed Northwestern undergraduates to perform cutting-edge laboratory work.”

Routtenberg spent most of his scientific career working on the biochemical and neurobiological mechanisms of how synapses change during learning, exploring how memories are formed and stored.

He was trained by James Olds, considered to be one of the founders of modern neuroscience, at the University of Michigan, and thus was an “intellectual grandson” of Donald Hebb, a giant in the field of learning and memory, said John Disterhoft, Magerstadt Memorial Research Professor in the department of physiology at Feinberg. 

“Olds was extremely creative and individualistic, characteristics that he nurtured in his student,” Disterhoft said. “Aryeh was intellectually demanding of himself as well as of his students and colleagues.” 

One of Routtenberg’s former Northwestern graduate students Jerome L. Rekart said his contributions to our understanding of memory are manifold.  

“His seemingly endless curiosity and keen insights led to diverse findings that spanned species, with articles ranging from reminiscence in the cold flour beetle to learning-dependent neuronal growth in rats to structural changes in the post-mortem tissue of Alzheimer’s patients,” said Rekart, now director of research and analytics for College for America, based at Southern New Hampshire University. “The theoretical models that he put forth challenged existing ideas about how molecules and cells actually store memories.” 

Routtenberg left a legacy of several hundred peer-reviewed papers as well as pithy reviews and theoretical papers. He was in considerable demand on the learning and memory lecture circuit, both nationally and internationally.

“Professor Routtenberg’s fellow neuroscientists valued his insights and comments about the field,” Disterhoft said. “Many of his experiments were performed before their time and at the cutting edge of the techniques that he had available to him, thus, pointing the way for those who followed after him.”

Routtenberg first came to Northwestern as a graduate student in 1961, receiving his master’s degree in comparative neurobiology in 1963. After earning his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, he returned to Northwestern as a member of the faculty in 1965. 

His colleagues remember him as a jazz aficionado, often playing the saxophone and flute at department holiday parties. 

“As a student at McGill University, he led a jazz band that once played background music behind the poetry readings from a local poet also from McGill named Leonard Cohen, or so he told me,” Ken Paller, professor of psychology and director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern, fondly recalls. “As a colleague, he was jovial and happy to converse about issues big and small, and to give sage career advice.”

Disterhoft said Routtenberg loved neuroscience, both as a discipline and as a way of life. 

“He told me several times that he had no intention to retire, that reading neuroscience, interacting with students and colleagues in the laboratory, and in conversations and at meetings was what made his life meaningful,” Disterhoft said. “As was his intention, Aryeh Routtenberg was an active faculty member at Northwestern University until his death.” 

Professor Routtenberg was a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and served on the editorial boards of many neuroscience research publications.

In addition to receiving degrees from Northwestern and the University of Michigan, he earned a B.A. in physiological psychology from McGill University in 1961. 

Routtenberg was a resident of Highland Park. He is survived by daughter Yael Routtenberg and son Noam Routtenberg; and long-time partner Rita Murphy and her children Margaret Kemp, Susan Murphy, Dan Murphy, Elizabeth McCarthy and Cara Murphy.

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