July 21, 1933 ~ June 9, 2022

Born in: Ames, IA
Resided in: Hamden, CT

Gordon M. Shepherd died peacefully on June 9, 2022, at Yale New Haven Hospital. He was born in 1933 in Ames, Iowa to Geoffrey Seddon Shepherd and Eleanor Murray Shepherd. He was a Yale neuroscientist of international stature known for his work on the organization of neural circuits in the brain and in particular how our sense of smell works. His work and family were central to his life. He will be deeply missed by his wife Grethe Shepherd, son Gordon M.G. Shepherd, daughters Kirsten Shepherd-Barr and Lisbeth Shepherd, seven grandchildren, three siblings, and an international network of friends, family, former students, and colleagues.

Known for his wisdom and gentle sense of humor and often called a Renaissance man, Gordon’s curiosity and passion for learning extended beyond science to all the humanities and arts and especially poetry. Widely traveled, he cherished the summerhouse that he and Grethe built in Denmark. He became fluent in Danish and spent summers with family there.

Gordon was a key contributor to an area of research called the “neuron doctrine” that shaped how we understand the brain. His work helped elucidate the properties of neuronal dendrites, spines, olfactory processing, and cortical evolution, and helped establish the foundations for integrative neuroscience, computational neuroscience, and neuroinformatics. He is credited with inventing the term “neurogastronomy” and published paradigm-shifting books from The Synaptic Organization of the Brain, considered a classic through five editions, to the more recent Neurogastronomy and Neurooenology, connecting our sense of smell and activity in our brain with our experience of both food and wine. (This NPR article quotes Gordon as saying the flavor of wine “engages more of our brain than any other human behavior.”)  His studies with Wilfrid Rall and later with Robert Brayton and many others were foundational in the field of computational neuroscience.

Gordon was a graduate of Iowa State University, Harvard Medical School, and the University of Oxford. He established a highly successful research lab at Yale in 1967, which he led until retiring in 2019, also serving as Deputy Provost for Science. His research thrived with the continuous support of NIH for over 45 years, and he published over 300 articles and eight books. He was the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Neurophysiology and The Journal of Neuroscience and was the recipient of numerous international awards including honorary degrees from the University of Copenhagen and the University of Pavia. Gordon was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and past president of AChemS and the Cajal Club which recognized him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

The Society for Neuroscience publishes autobiographies of notable neuroscientists, and you can see his here.

Gordon was a dedicated teacher and loved working with graduate students in particular. Just before his death he shared his credo for the “life of the lab” with family members: “A graduate student’s commitment – I seek training in methods to reveal the mechanisms of nature, which requires passion on my part for extending mental efforts under the discipline and criticism of experts in those methods. I regard my results as belonging equally to those in society who have supported me as well as those who benefit from my research. I work with my mentors not as a servant but as a loyal colleague and friend. I will practice collegiality, in which competitors are also colleagues, which is at the heart of basic research. Collegiality defines basic academic research as a global enterprise which knows no boundaries of nationality, religion, race, gender or language, in which all work for the common good. The common language of basic research is truth, which rises above all else.”

A memorial is planned at Yale in the fall. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Gordon’s name to:

The Connecticut Audubon Society: https://www.ctaudubon.org/donate/

PLAN International: https://www.planusa.org/donate/

American Indian College Fund: https://engage.collegefund.org/page/22097/donate/1 .

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  1. I will never forget that rainy day in 1993 when Gordon and I first met in Shanghai. It was truly a life-defining moment for me. I feel so lucky lately having Gordon as my mentor. It was his trust, patience and giving me enough room to let me explore freely that liberated my creativity. I am also deeply indebted to his unreserved support to my career development as well as his empathy and help during those difficult moments of my life. To me, Gordon is not only a great mentor, a close colleague, but also a best friend with whom I can talk about anything.

    Gordon, although I cannot come to attend your funeral and memorial services, you always live in my heart! May you stay peacefully in heaven!

    • Dear Wei,
      My mother and Gordon and Lisbeth are all so grateful for your beautiful message about my dad. Thank you so much. We will always cherish our friendship with you and your family.
      Love,
      Kirsten

  2. Shepherd Family-
    Please accept my condolences on your loss. I feel incredibly honored to have had Gordon as my mentor – his kindness, passion, dedication to furthering knowledge, collegiality and support for his people were truly exceptional. I am forever grateful for my time with Gordon – he molded and shaped my life and career in so many ways. As I read the Graduate student’s commitment – I was taken back and reminded of the great man he was. He will always be in my thoughts and heart – and I will cherish my time with Gordon forever.
    Love,
    Matt

    • Dear Matt, thank you for this wonderful message! Your words and sentiments mean so much to us. It’s good to hear that the “graduate student’s commitment” resonates so deeply with you – in the days before he died, my father wanted to be sure that we knew of this “credo” that he had written down, and it seemed important to share. Sending love back to you, from all of us – Lisbeth

  3. Many year’s ago, Gordon called to invite me to give a talk at the Yale Medical School. On that call he said: ‘Jim, ah, you know, Yale is sort of a formal place with many traditions’. After a few minutes of my probing Gordon acknowledged that what he was trying to tell me was that I should probably show up in something other than my usual polo shirt and jeans. I told him, “don’t worry, I am very happy to support Yale’s traditions”. Two months later I showed up wearing genes, and my great grandfathers ’06 Yale graduation jacket and beanie. Some would have been annoyed – Gordon thought it was both amusing and fully in character. In 2004, for fun, I launched the ‘World Association of Modeling’. While membership was limited to myself, the organization did inaugurate at its first meeting the Modeling Hall of Fame, and I invited Gordon and his early modeling collaborator, Wilfred Rall to be the first inductees. Their acceptance speech, given in tandem was a revelation to the young computational neurobiologist at the meeting, that many have referred to since. I have long said, and still believe, that their collaboration to understand the computational structure of dendrites stands as a seminal contribution to neuroscience. I will very much miss Gordon’s wit and fundamentally good will, decency, and tolerance as a scientist and a person. As the mentor of one of my mentors (Lew Haberly), Gordon would often introduce himself as my academic grandfather, often followed quickly by some form of disclaimer made with a wide grin. I was pleased to be able to amuse him with my ideas and my occasional antics, and will miss him very much.

    • Jim, thank you so much for writing this wonderful remembrance of my father! We enjoyed hearing your perspective and stories so much. Love from the family, Lisbeth

  4. Gordon was a great scientist. To many of us, he was the very embodiment of a mentor and fatherly figure. He remains an inspiration.

    I will be grieving Gordon’s loss for a while before I begin to celebrate his life.

    Rest in Peace

    • Chiquito, thank you for this tribute to my father! Your words ring true. We were so sorry to hear of your mother’s passing – our deepest condolences to you and your family. Love, Lisbeth

  5. Gordon was a great scientist. But to many of us, he was also the very embodiment of a mentor and fatherly figure. He remains an inspiration.

    I will be grieving Gordon’s loss for a while before I begin to celebrate his life.

    Rest in Peace

  6. The very first time I met Gordon, he introduced himself to me as my academic grandfather. Of course, I knew of him before that meeting. He was a giant. His name was on my bookshelf on at least five different volumes, and in my files of papers countless times. And of course, I already knew that he had mentored my postdoctoral mentor, but I had no sense that he would pay attention to such a relationship. His generosity on this first meeting eased my starstruck anxiety, and opened a long and generous (on his part; thrilling on my end) relationship that was more personal than scientific, but which was based in our scientific experience. We both earned undergraduate degrees in Iowa, and we shared interests in computational modeling, olfaction, and evolutionary neuroscience. These gave us many chances for conversation, and I cherish each one that we were able to have. He was a wonderful man. I wish there had been more. My deepest condolences to Grethe, Gordon, Kristen, Lisbeth, and the rest of the family. I was lucky to know him, and I hope that you find some peace and comfort knowing the way Gordon touched so many lives.

    • Dear Kurt, thank you for this remembrance of my father! It’s wonderful to hear of your Iowa connection and many other shared interests. Thank you for your kind words and wishes. Love, Lisbeth

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