Bruce McEwen, Stress Hormone Researcher, Dies
Bruce McEwen, Stress Hormone Researcher, Dies

Bruce McEwen, Stress Hormone Researcher, Dies

The Rockefeller University neuroendocrinologist made landmark discoveries on how hormones affect brain structure.

Jan 6, 2020
Emily Makowski

ABOVE: ROCKEFELLER UNIVERSITY

Bruce McEwen, a neuroendocrinologist at Rockefeller University, died January 2 after a brief illness. He was 81 years old.

McEwen is best known for his research on how stress hormones can reconfigure neural connections in the brain, according to a university statement. In 1968, McEwen and his colleagues discovered that the rat hippocampus is affected by the hormone cortisol, sparking further research into how hormones can enter the brain and affect mental functioning and mood. At the time, most scientists believed that the brain was not malleable after becoming fully developed, a line of thinking that McEwen’s research findings contradicted. In 1993, he coined the term allostatic load, which describes the physiological effects of chronic stress. 

With his wife, Karen Bulloch, a Rockefeller professor, he studied how immune cells in the brain increase during a person’s lifespan and can contribute to neurodegenerative disease. He also researched how sex hormones affect the central nervous system.

Over the course of his career, which spanned six decades, McEwen received many accolades including the Pasarow Foundation award in neuropsychiatry, the Fondation Ipsen Neuronal Plasticity and Endocrine Regulation prizes, the Scolnick Prize in Neuroscience, and the William James Lifetime Achievement Award for Basic Research. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and the American Society of Arts and Sciences.

“Bruce was a giant in the field of neuroendocrinology,” McEwen’s colleague Leslie Vosshall, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller, says in the statement. “He was a world leader in studying the impact of stress hormones on the brain, and led by example to show that great scientists can also be humble, gentle, and generous human beings.”

McEwen was born January 17, 1938, in Fort Collins, Colorado, and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Oberlin College and a PhD in cell biology from Rockefeller University. In 1966, after a brief job as a postdoc at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, he became a professor at Rockefeller, where he conducted research for the rest of his life. His last paper published before his death, a review article on hormones and brain-body science, came out last month. 

In addition to being a prolific researcher, McEwen was also active in education, mentorship, and development at Rockefeller. From 1985 to 1993, he was associate dean and later dean of Rockefeller’s graduate training program. He was also the faculty chair of the university’s science outreach program and faculty advisor to the Parents & Science Initiative, which was created to showcase how research at Rockefeller contributes to knowledge of childhood development and wellbeing.

McEwen published more than 700 peer-reviewed articles, and his papers were cited more than 130,000 times. He also coauthored two books for lay audiences: The Hostage Brain, published in 1994, and The End of Stress as We Know It in 2002.

“Bruce was a pioneer in rigorously bridging the gap between cellular biochemistry and human health and behavior,” says Rockefeller University President Richard Lifton in the statement. “Aside from his fundamental contributions to the advancement of science, Bruce will be fondly remembered for the depth of his kindness, his unassuming and gentle demeanor, his talent as an artist, his openness to new ideas, and his joy in traveling the world with his wife Karen.”

McEwen is survived by his wife, two daughters, two stepchildren, eight grandchildren, a brother, and two nephews.

Emily Makowski is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at emakowski@the-scientist.com.