Nerve researcherMary Bartlett Bunge

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Growing up in Connecticut, neither of Bartlett’s parents had gone to college, and her father thought that a college education was useless for women. Her grandmother taught her to sew, and after success at making her own clothing, she decided she might grow up to be a New York fashion designer. But one day while swimming, she noticed tadpoles swimming around her, and couldn’t quite understand how they could develop into frogs. She decided to study biology. At Simmons College in Boston she witnessed a bit of a rabbit’s heart in a culture contract, and was fascinated; she decided she wanted to do medical research. She was invited to get her Master’s in Medical Physiology while working as a research assistant at the University of Wisconsin Medical School. She married medical student Richard Bunge, and stayed through receiving her Ph.D in 1960.

Dr. Bunge in an undated photo from the University of Miami.

The couple moved to Columbia University where she served as a research associate, and then moved to a research position at the Washington University of Medicine. She was promoted to assistant professor, and then full professor. Along the way, Richard taught her about his passion, neuroscience, and they moved to the University of Miami (Fla.) Miller School of Medicine. And that, finally, gets us to what she became known for: The Miami Project, begun in 1985 — pioneering work on finding ways to repair spinal cords to help paralyzed people. “Her research was instrumental in allowing scientists to critically evaluate Schwann cell transplantation in people living with spinal cord injury,” said Dr. W. Dalton Dietrich, scientific director of The Miami Project. “Dr. Mary Bunge was a true neuroscience pioneer,” agreed Marc Buoniconti, senior director for advocacy and donor relations at the Project. “Her lifelong dedication to the University of Miami and The Miami Project’s mission of seeking a cure for paralysis has produced truly groundbreaking research.”

She didn’t “just” do the research: she also “mentored a succession of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows,” the University of Miami says. Richard died in 1996, but Dr. Bunge didn’t retire until 2023. Both Drs. Bunge received the American Spinal Injury Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018. Before that, she received the Wakeman Award for Spinal Cord Repair in 1996, and the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke three times. In 2001, she received the Christopher Reeve Research Medal for Spinal Cord Injury Repair. She donated the money she received from the 2005 Lois Pope LIFE International Research Award to the University of Miami to establish a lecture series by prominent women researchers in cell biology. It was named the Mary Bartlett Bunge Distinguished Women in Cell Biology Lecture, and she sat in on the 19th one on February 6. Eleven days later, she died — on February 17 — at 92.

From This is True for 25 February 2024

6 Comments on “Mary Bartlett Bunge, Nerve researcher”

  1. I find these H.U. articles absolutely fascinating. Almost all the time, they are about someone that I had no idea existed, but that someone did something that affected many, many people in a positive way.

    Dr. Bunge is one such example. I never heard of her, but people today are walking because of the research she did. Absolutely incredible!

    • Agreed! I love these stories. It makes me look around and acknowledge that there are amazing people all around us, just doing what they are good at, using their gifts, whether I see this or not. Humans are awesome❤️ …lots of the time. 😉

  2. I feel like she is exactly the kind of person that Honorary Unsubscribe was created for: an amazing, accomplished person who no one (outside of her field, I suppose) has really heard of!

    Thanks for researching these, Randy!

  3. Reading these stories makes us feel so motivated to try our best for the world, no matter on what.

  4. She sounds like a brilliant and determined scientist who did not let the worldview she was raised with determine the level of her accomplishments. Thank you for this article.

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