Ursula Bellugi smiling for the camera wearing a purple shirt in 2015
Ursula Bellugi smiling for the camera wearing a purple shirt in 2015

Ursula Bellugi, Leading Sign Language Neuroscientist, Dies at 91

Her research showed that communication via sign language is as neurologically complex as spoken language. 

Lisa Winter
Lisa Winter

Lisa Winter became social media editor for The Scientist in 2017. In addition to her duties on social media platforms, she also pens obituaries for the website. She graduated from Arizona State University, where she studied genetics, cell, and developmental biology.

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May 11, 2022

ABOVE: Ursula Bellugi in 2015 The Salk Institute

Although the origins of sign language for deaf or hearing-impaired people date back hundreds of years, its use has been highly stigmatized as being a lesser way of communicating. Neuroscientist Ursula Bellugi made significant contributions to decreasing the stigma of American Sign Language (ASL) by showing it is a complex language and not a truncated stand-in for spoken language, as some critics had described it. Bellugi died on April 17 at the age of 91.

Bellugi was born in Jena, Germany, on February 21, 1931, as Ursula Herzberger. Her father, Max, was a prominent mathematician, and her mother, Edith, was an artist. In response to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and the dwindling prospects for Max as a Jewish scholar, the family left Germany in 1934 for upstate New York. According to The New York Times, her father’s friend and former professor, Albert Einstein, helped him get settled in Rochester and find a job in an optical laboratory for the photography company Kodak. 

Upon finishing high school, Bellugi attended Antioch College, a small private school near Dayton, Ohio, and earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1952. In 1953, she married Pierro Bellugi, a famed conductor and composer. The pair had two sons but ultimately divorced in 1959. 

Her work in psychology was shaped by an interest in language development, and she later moved to Massachusetts to work under Roger Brown at Harvard and MIT, where she studied language acquisition in children. While hustling as a single mother, she began taking classes at both universities, getting a PhD in education from Harvard in 1967, and briefly held a position as an associate professor there. Soon after, she married linguist Edward Klima, one of her former instructors at MIT, though she continued to use the name Bellugi professionally, the Times reports.

In 1968, the family moved to La Jolla, California. Bellugi took a job at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and frequently collaborated with her husband, who taught at the nearby University of California, San Diego. According to a statement from the Salk Institute, her research led to the discovery that speaking in sign language activated the brain in the same ways as oral language, and demonstrated tremendous plasticity in the brain’s ability to understand and communicate via signing. This work earned Bellugi a place in the National Academy of Sciences in 2007.

“Children were told that they should sit on their hands and try as hard as they could to integrate with the hearing world,” Bellugi’s son Rob tells The San Diego Union-Tribune. He adds that both his mother and his stepfather, who adopted him and his brother after marrying their mother, “were able to prove that American Sign Language is a rich language with all of the grammar and syntax that you would find in any spoken language. They defeated the oppressors of ASL.”

Two years after joining the Salk Institute, Bellugi became director of the institution’s Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience, a position she held until her retirement in 2017. Over the years, she also held adjunct faculty positions at UC San Diego and San Diego State University.

In addition to her contributions to ASL, Bellugi also studied language development in those with autism or Williams syndrome. Williams syndrome is a condition in which a group of deleted genes affects brain growth and maturation and thus social and linguistic development. A 2018 statement from the Williams Syndrome Association credits Bellugi as being the first researcher from Salk “who studied people rather than the contents of a test tube or a petri dish.” Over the years, she connected with more than 1,000 individuals with Williams syndrome to learn firsthand about their language and social development.

In 2019, the Salk Institute renamed an award in her honor; the Ursula Bellugi Trailblazer Award is given annually to a woman making strides in STEM. Bellugi coauthored more than 250 papers throughout her career and wrote The Signs of Language, a book that made the case for ASL as a complete, complex language, in 1979 along with Klima.

She was preceded in death by her second husband and her son David. She is survived by her sister and brother, her son Rob, four grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.