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BU’s Howard Eichenbaum Dies at 69

CAS professor conducted groundbreaking research in the science of memory

Howard Eichenbaum

Howard Eichenbaum, a CAS professor of psychological and brain sciences, was an internationally recognized figure in advancing understanding of the fundamental nature and mechanisms of memory. Photo by Dan Kirksey, KDKC Photos, Escondido, Calif.

Howard Eichenbaum, a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of psychological and brain sciences, director of BU’s Center for Memory and Brain and the Laboratory of Cognitive Neurobiology, and an internationally recognized figure in advancing the understanding of the fundamental nature and mechanisms of memory, died in Boston on Friday at age 69, following recent spinal surgery.

“Howard’s contributions to science and the neuroscience community are immense,” says David Somers (GRS’93), a professor and chair of psychological and brain sciences and director of the Attention and Perception Neuroimaging Laboratory. “His leadership and vision paved the way for so much here at BU and his impact on our community will continue to be felt for decades to come. This is truly a huge loss for the department and the neuroscience community, both at BU and beyond.”

Eichenbaum studied the neuropsychology of memory in animals and the characterization of memory coding properties of neurons. “He did groundbreaking experimental and theoretical work on the role of the hippocampus in the formation of memory,” Somers says.

His extensive empirical findings, including the discovery of “time cells” in the hippocampus; his integrative approach, which synthesized results across species, across methods, and across levels of analysis; and his important theoretical advances concerning multiple memory systems of the brain, all helped advance our understanding of how memory works and how it is organized in the brain. He was also known for his mentorship, guidance, and encouragement of scores of undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty who went on to have significant impact on the field, and for his remarkable history of service and leadership.

Eichenbaum was a former chair of the psychological and brain sciences department and founder of what is now called the Graduate Program for Neuroscience, as well as the undergraduate major in neuroscience.

He was elected in 2015 to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and was a Fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where he was chair of the Section on Neuroscience, and the Association for Psychological Science. He was editor-in-chief of the scientific journal Hippocampus and served on the Council of the Society for Neuroscience and the National Institute of Mental Health National Advisory Mental Health Council.

Beyond his scientific contributions, he will be remembered for his generous contributions to the field, including mentoring many scores of students, postdocs, and junior faculty, colleagues say.

Eichenbaum’s nonscience pursuits included coaching his two sons’ Little League baseball teams for many years, taking them around the country on their “baseball-parks-of-America tour”—a quest to catch a game at every Major League Baseball Park in America that spanned 6 summers across 15 years, kayaking in the waters off Chatham, Mass., and rooting passionately for his Boston Red Sox and University of Michigan teams.

He is survived by his wife of 35 years, Karen J. Shedlack, his two sons, Alexander E. Eichenbaum and Adam S. Eichenbaum, both of whom are pursuing graduate studies, his 100-year-old mother, Edith (Kahn) Eichenbaum, his brother, Jerold Eichenbaum, and sister, Miriam Eichenbaum Drop, nephews Michael Eichenbaum and Dylan Drop, and niece, Tali Eichenbaum.

“Dad was a fierce adherent to the principles of learning, and loved sharing everything he had learned throughout his life with us,” Alex Eichenbaum says. “That included everything from wisdom about using memory strategies to study for a test to developing a perfectly unique pitching motion to being your own man and not letting other people tell you how to live your life.”

“He opened up the world to me and encouraged me to never stop exploring,” Adam Eichenbaum says.

Eichenbaum earned a BS in cell biology and a PhD in psychology at the University of Michigan and held faculty positions at Wellesley College (1977 to 1991), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1991 to 1993), and SUNY Stony Brook (1993 to 1996) before joining the Boston University faculty in 1996.

A memorial service will be announced at a later date. An event is being planned for the Memory Disorders Research Society 2017 meeting in September to recognize Eichenbaum’s contributions and share remembrances.

Joel Brown, Staff Writer for BU Today, Bostonia and BU Today Marketing & Communications
Joel Brown

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@bu.edu.

10 Comments on BU’s Howard Eichenbaum Dies at 69

  • Sudhir Sivakumaran on 07.24.2017 at 8:42 am

    This is a totally unexpected, shocking news. What a great loss this is for everyone – his family, students and all of neuroscience. Prof. Eichenbaum was a great source of knowledge and inspiration for me during my education in neuroscience and doctoral work on learning and memory. RIP, Prof. Howard Eichenbaum.

  • Marianne Bezaire on 07.24.2017 at 9:40 am

    Prof. Eichenbaum will be greatly missed in our department and the broader community. My thoughts are with his family at this time.

  • Catherine Caldwell-Harris on 07.24.2017 at 12:49 pm

    So sad. He was young.

  • Victoria Templer on 07.24.2017 at 3:04 pm

    My thoughts on his passing


  • Gary Wenk on 07.24.2017 at 3:09 pm

    He was a dear friend for forty years. His contributions to neuroscience will never be forgotten by historians.

  • Randal Koene on 07.24.2017 at 4:46 pm

    What a terrible, tragic loss. Prof. Eichenbaum was exuberant, enthusiastic, with a powerful gleam in his eye, even weeks ago. He will be greatly missed!

  • Azer Bestavros on 07.24.2017 at 10:14 pm

    This is very sad indeed. What a loss to BU and to the neuroscience community. I spoke to him only a few weeks ago walking out of the garage (he is an early bird like me, often parking right next to each other on the first level of the Warren Towers garage). Life is brittle. He will be missed but not forgotten.

  • Zimbul Albo on 07.26.2017 at 1:02 pm

    This is terrible news and a very sad moment for all of us. He was such a wonderful person and a terrific investigator. His science honesty and good work ethics make this event a tragic loss for the whole field of Neuroscience.

  • Kristen M. Harris on 07.26.2017 at 5:28 pm

    I can only say that the sadness at the loss of dear Howard has spread across the continent and world. What a tragic loss for all of us. I truly miss him and his energy and love for science. My deep condolences to all of you. Kristen

  • Esther Kirshenbaum on 02.04.2019 at 8:40 am

    Imagine my shock when I just learned this so long after Howard’s death. I grew up in Benton Harbor, Michigan with Howard, 2 years behind in the same high school. Then went on to U of M where I worked as a lab assistant for him on his work in protein synthesis and memory. He did brilliant work and explained it with such ease. He lived a block away from my dorm in Ann Arbor and dated my roommate. I can’t begin to tell you how much joy we three had. He had such an ironic, wry and wonderful sense of humor. He had unsurpassed sensitivity and empathy. As I recall he also played rugby which was in contrast to his otherwise subtleness of movement; though he was built like a tank. I first learned that Za was short for pizza from him. I was hoping to finally catch up with him and surprise him after all these decades when my brother back in Michigan told me, “0h didn’t you know? Howard died”. Stunned, no, reeling actually, I didn’t want to believe it. Feeling this sad now decades after last seeing him I can only imagine how difficult it has been for his friends, family and colleagues to move through and keep processing this loss. If any of you are still reading these posts, I hope that mine underscores how unforgettable Howard is. The memory remains clear as a bell, and he could easily explain how that translates in terms of neuroscience. Esther

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