21 January 2009

Neurobiologist Jeffery Allan Winer, a professor of molecular and cell biology who mapped the network of nerves that allow the brain to represent and interpret sound, died Tuesday, Dec. 9, at his home in Benicia after a brief battle with cancer. He was 63.

A neuroanatomist, Winer used various animal models to trace the complex pathways between neurons in the auditory system from their beginnings in the auditory medulla to the midbrain, thalamus, and, finally, the auditory cortex, in which he identified many specialized subdivisions.

"He was really the pinnacle of that tradition of Ramon y Cajal, the Spanish neuroanatomist who drew every axon and dendrite in the nervous system," said Winer's colleague Christoph Schreiner, a UC San Francisco professor of otolaryngology and head graduate adviser of the UCSF/UC Berkeley bioengineering group. "Jeff laid out the structure of the central auditory cortex from the ground up, detailing every synapse and neurotransmitter site on each cell, yet creating a large, overarching picture that is the most complete in existence."

Such detailed and painstaking work is needed so that physiologists can make sense of the measurements they make in the brain, Schreiner said, adding, "Anybody who wants to understand the auditory system cannot bypass his work; he has left a guidebook for physiologists like myself, a long-lasting and profound contribution. The biggest fear I have is, 'Who is going to continue this fundamental work?' "

Winer, known for his generosity as a mentor to students, was lauded two years ago by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau as one of the campus's "everyday heroes" a staff or faculty member who has made an extraordinary effort to help undergraduates, either academically or personally.

"He was more accessible than most faculty he loved the pedagogic role, and his openness to students made him quite popular," said David Larue, a Berkeley research specialist who had worked with him since 1981. "He wrote more letters of recommendation in a month than many others would be asked to write in a year, not just for students, but for colleagues applying for jobs and faculty advancement."

Born Nov. 16, 1945, in Minneapolis, Winer moved with his family to Phoenix, where he attended middle and high school. He earned a B.A. in psychology from the University of Arizona in Tucson in 1967 and a Ph.D. in physiological psychology from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 1974.

After postdoctoral studies he joined the Department of Anatomy and Physiology at Berkeley in 1979. He switched to the newly created Department of Molecular and Cell Biology in 1986 when his old department was eliminated in a reorganization of biology teaching and research on campus. During his career, he co-authored more than 70 papers and delivered more than 25 guest lectures. He and Schreiner recently edited a major review text on the inferior colliculus of the brain, and a companion volume on the auditory cortex is currently under way.

Winer was known for his passions, dividing his time between the laboratory, books, and music. One whole wall of his home in Benicia was dedicated to books by and about Shakespeare, Schreiner said. He also amassed more than 7,000 classical CDs and had a high-end sound system.

"Jeff was one of the few truly well-rounded intellectuals I have known at Berkeley," said Geoffrey Owen, professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology and former dean of biological sciences in the College of Letters and Science. "His interests were unusually diverse, and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of everything from Russian military history and baseball statistics to the music of any composer you cared to name, and seemingly all of English literature. He was remarkable."

Winer is survived by his mother, Eileen Winer, 94; sister, Jane Winer; and his sister's partner, Carol Galbraith, of Columbia, Md.

A memorial service is planned for late January.

Robert Sanders