THIS IS THE UNLIKELY STORY of a one-time taxi driver, his circuitous college career, and the “cognitive map” that led him to a Nobel Prize. John O’Keefe was a child of working-class immigrants, born in Harlem and raised in the South Bronx. He struggled in high school, enrolled in a private college, transferred to City College, drove a cab at night and took six years to graduate.
His undergraduate path to a baccalaureate degree in the 1960s would be familiar to many students today. And the journey took him far. This year he received one of the world’s highest honors. With two of his former students, O’Keefe won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering the brain’s “inner GPS,” which enables animals to figure out where they are and how to get someplace else.
O’Keefe credits his undergraduate years for setting him on the right path. “We spent a lot of time talking in the cafeteria and hanging out on the south lawn, “ he says. “It was really quite an exciting time. Those days were very, very important to me in forming a lot of my ideas about how to begin to think about the way in which the brain might actually form concepts and memories.” Now 75, O’Keefe is the 13th University graduate to win a Nobel Prize; five others were in medicine, three in physics, two in chemistry and two in economics.
The journey from navigating a cab through city streets to discovering the “inner GPS” was far from smooth or straightforward.
O’Keefe, the son of Irish immigrants who worked in the Newark shipyards during World War II — his father was later a New York City transit bus mechanic — delayed college because, he says, he “didn’t do very well academically” at Regis, a Jesuit high school in Manhattan and failed to get a scholarship.
A “poor performance in the classics at Regis meant I was better off trying something else,“ he says. So when he finally enrolled at New York University, he chose to study aeronautical engineering.
O’Keefe attended school at night and to bring in money and pay tuition, worked days in a Wall Street brokerage and in the engineering department of an insurance company.
“It was the days of Sputnik and it was very glamorous,” he says, referring to the Soviet Union’s first satellite in 1957, which started the Space Race, ratcheted up the Cold War and sent a nuclear shiver through America. “I had it in mind to not only make airplanes, but rockets and spaceships.”
But making ends meet financially was always a struggle, he says.
Things got easier when he landed a job as a junior engineer at Grumman aircraft, the Long Island company that “generously helped with tuition.”
At Grumman O’Keefe met engineers who were studying at City College and City College students who worked summer jobs. And after three years at NYU accumulating math, physics and engineering credits but not getting close to a degree, he decided to make a change.
“It became clear that if I could get accepted at City to study in the daytime and could survive without a full-time job, I had a much better chance of obtaining a degree than carrying on for an indefinite period in the evening,” O’Keefe says. He transferred to City and attended tuition-free, just as seven of 10 full-time CUNY undergraduates do today. “I’m pretty sure I never would have gotten a degree if I hadn’t switched to City College,” he says. “The fact that City was tuition-free made it possible.” Still, he recalls, he “didn’t have any money and had to earn my keep” driving a taxi nights and weekends. “I also worked in the library at City College and as a projectionist for the film courses,” says O’Keefe.
At City, O’Keefe took a leisurely stroll toward his 1963 bachelor’s degree.
He started as a physics major but was so enticed by the variety of courses available that, “I acted like a kid in a candy shop. Why wouldn’t it be interesting to take courses in film studies and advanced English courses? I took many, many philosophy courses, from philosophy of science to ethics to philosophy of religion.”
O’Keefe met his wife, Eileen Hoeppner, in a philosophy course. “That was tremendous,” he says. Graduating in 1962, she became a professor of public health at London Metropolitan University. She has published on globalization, health impact assessment, human rights, community development with housebound elders and the mental well-being of children. They have two grown sons, Kieron and Riley.
One powerful influence on O’Keefe was the late professor Kenneth B. Clark, the educational psychologist who debunked supposed differences in the mental abilities of black and white children; his research was instrumental in the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 decision that declared school segregation unconstitutional. In his course in motivation, Clark brought in “people from all walks of life. I remember clearly [civil rights activist] Malcolm X spending a whole hour telling us about how things looked from his perspective. He was very intelligent and I took a great liking to him.”
Another influential professor was Daniel Lehrman, founder of Rutgers University’s Institute of Animal Behavior, who stopped by City College on his way home to Greenwich Village to teach a course.
“I was fortunate to take that course in animal behavior,” says O’Keefe, who remembers Lehrman “flew” across the classroom to show how ring doves conceive and demonstrated every nuance of their mating behavior.
But it was psychology that captivated O’Keefe the most, particularly as he “developed an interest in how aspects of psychology could be explained in terms of brain function,” he says.
“A chap called Phil Zeigler,” now a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Hunter College, “was an incredible inspiration,” he says, and also gave him his first laboratory research experience.
At age 83, Zeigler (City College, ’54) still runs a lab, directs Hunter’s undergraduate neuroscience program and is training director of the Graduate Center’s Ph.D. program in behavioral and cognitive neuroscience. For more than 50 years, he has explored the neural basis of behaviors like learning, eating and exploration. Currently working with Hunter associate biology professor Paul Feinstein, he looks at the genetic and neural bases of the exquisitely refined way that rats use their whiskers to navigate in the dark.
Zeigler became the first researcher in City College’s psychology doctoral faculty in 1961. O’Keefe, still an undergraduate, worked in his lab and attended Zeigler’s physiological psychology class. It was a graduate course that would now be called neuroscience and covered the physiology and anatomy of the nervous system and what little was known about the behavior of the brain. Zeigler remembers O’Keefe was excited about what he read. One of the things that was important to him, Zeigler says, was that “I let him use my reprint collection, so he could go over the literature.”
Twenty years ago Zeigler, without remembering O’Keefe had been his student, requested a reprint of one of O’Keefe’s articles. O’Keefe reminded him of their connection and they’ve stayed in touch since.
After three years at City College — six since he had begun his undergraduate work — O’Keefe had accumulated more than 160 credits, some 40 more than were needed for most bachelor’s degrees. “A dean said to me, ‘You’ve got enough credits to take a degree in several subjects, so why don’t you take one of them and look to your future?’” O’Keefe says. He chose psychology.
With grants from Canada and the U.S. National Institutes of Health, O’Keefe earned a Ph.D. in physiological psychology at McGill University in Montreal in 1967. There he developed techniques for recording the activities of single cells in the brains of freely moving animals.
Heading to University College London for postdoctoral training and supported by another NIH grant, he focused on the hippocampus, a brain structure that was known to be involved in memory storage. He discovered that certain “place cells” fired selectively in response to an animal’s location, laying the basis for his eventual Nobel Prize.
O’Keefe has remained at University College, where he was appointed Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in 1987. He now directs the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre in Neural Circuits and Behaviour.
City College President Lisa S. Coico, who has invited the Nobel laureate to be honored at spring commencement, says of O’Keefe, “He told me City College is what made him who his today. We are very proud of him.”
CUNY’S NOBEL LAUREATES
Nobel Prize for Medicine, 1959
City College, Class of 1937
Nobel Prize for Physics, 1961
City College, Class of 1935
Nobel Prize for Medicine, 1970
City College, Class of 1933
Nobel Prize for Economics, 1972
City College, Class of 1940
Nobel Prize for Medicine, 1977
Hunter College, Class of 1941
Nobel Prize for Physics, 1978
City College, Class of 1954
Nobel Prize for Chemistry, 1985
City College, Class of 1937
Nobel Prize for Chemistry, 1985
City College, Class of 1937
Nobel Prize for Medicine, 1986
Brooklyn College, Class of 1943
Nobel Prize for Medicine, 1988
Hunter College, Class of 1937
Nobel Prize for Physics, 1988
City College, Class of 1943
Robert J. Aumann
Nobel Prize for Economics, 2005
City College, Class of 1950
Nobel Prize for Economics, 1990
Baruch College, Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Nobel Prize for Economics, 2008
Distinguished Scholar, Luxembourg Income
Study Center, CUNY Graduate Center