Remembering Transgender Neuroscientist Ben Barres
By Mila Madison
Dr. Barres had chaired the department of neurobiology at Stanford University before being diagnosed with cancer last April. He was responsible for uncovering groundbreaking findings regarding how the human brain functions. Barres was responsible for sparking the effort of understanding glial cells, which are the most abundant type of cells in the central nervous system. He had also studied many brain impacting diseases in the 1980’s.
In addition to making scientific discoveries and having published 167 peer-reviewed papers, Barres was also known as an advocate for marginalized communities including women in academia and his own transgender community. He was also the first transgender person to be selected for membership at the U.S. National Academy of Science.
“You know, I think science is beautiful,” Barres had once said in an interview. “What is more beautiful than discovering something that has never been known before? That is sort of awe-inspiring. Maybe that’s the same experience people get when they go to a museum and see a beautiful piece of art.”
The news of Barres’ passing prompted an outpouring of heartfelt responses from colleagues and members of the scientific community.
Mary E. Hatten, the Frederick P. Rose Professor of Neurosciences and Behavior at the Rockefeller University:
"Ben was a giant and will be dearly missed."
The Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation:
"The pipeline of drugs in development for #Alzheimers owes so much to Ben Barres. He was a visionary scientist and generous mentor."
Greg James, a pediatric neurosurgeon in London:
"My PhD was on glial cell biology and I referenced Ben extensively. He made a major contribution to our understanding that glia are not boring supporting cells but have a critical symbiotic relationship with neurons. He left us too young."
Egle Cekanaviciute, a NASA biologist:
"[I'm] forever grateful for being challenged & trained to defend my ideas, & inspired by his dedication to mentorship & inclusivity in science."
Hank Greeley, a Stanford law professor who focuses on biotech issues:
“We honor and miss him for his scientific greatness & his human goodness. But his identity & his constant support for trans people & issues were deeply important & not just to him. [H]e was more than open, he was fiery about his identity and about trans opponents. We first met when he emailed me, a law prof, to ask about suing the Nat'l Academies Press about an awful book on trans people. ('No,' I said, & he listened.)"
Barres also suffered from a condition known as prosopagnosia, which meant he was unable to enjoy art as most people do. He couldn’t distinguish people’s faces, which meant he relied on voices or other types of visual cues to recognize people, said a Stanford University representative to Quartz.
The university also said Barres spent his last days and hours finishing letters of recommendation for his trainees. He was 63-years old.
Watch Ben Barres talk about his gender transition on Charlie Rose’s Brian Series: