Collection VF01587 - Cowan, William Maxwell, Vertical File


Reference code


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Cowan, William Maxwell, Vertical File



0.02 Linear Feet

Name of creator


Biographical history

William Maxwell Cowan was a world-renowned neurobiologist who served as the vice president and chief scientific officer of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). He served the HHMI from 1987 until his retirement in 2000, and helped define HHMIs biomedical research program. Under his guidance, the institute's research program more than doubled in size and contributed new ways of understanding biology. Cowan is best known in the field of neurobiology for discovering that nerve cells die and many pathways are reorganized by the elimination of particular branches of axons during the process of brain development. This proved to be widespread in the developing nervous system and refining the brain's initial connections.

Born in South Africa, Cowan's educational background includes the University of the Witwatersrand, where he graduated with honors in 1952. Cowan received his Ph.D. in 1956 and his M.D. in 1958, both from Oxford University in England. He was on the faculty of Oxford from 1953 until 1964. Cowan spent a year at Washington University in 1965, and later joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine. In 1968, he returned to Washington University as professor and chairman of the department of anatomy and neurobiology. Cowan remained at the university until 1987, also serving as provost and executive vice chancellor in 1986. He also was the director of the developmental neurobiology laboratory and vice president of the Salk Institute in San Diego during the 1980s. After his retirement, Cowan became a distinguished adjunct professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas in its Center for Neuroscience and the department of neurology. He also was an adjunct distinguished professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and renewed his ties to the Salk Institute in 2000 as a distinguished professor.

Cowan was active in the medical academic community, serving various roles such as foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences, a member of the Institute of Medicine and a fellow of the Royal Society of Great Britain. He was a founding member and vice-chairman of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, a non-profit organization of more than 200 scientists who are dedicated to improving public knowledge of brain research.

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The Vertical File Collection is open and accessible for research.

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Users of the collection should read and abide by the Rights and Permissions guidelines at the Bernard Becker Medical Library Archives.

Users of the collection who wish to cite items from this collection, in whole or in part, in any form of publication must request, sign, and return a Statement of Use form to the Archives.

For detailed information regarding use of this collection, contact the Archives and Rare Book Department of the Becker Library (

Preferred Citation:

Item description, Reference Code, Bernard Becker Medical Library Archives, Washington University in St. Louis.

Languages of the material

  • English

Scripts of the material

  • Latin

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"Describing Archives: A Content Standard, Second Edition (DACS), 2013."

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© Copyright 2019 Bernard Becker Medical Library Archives. All rights reserved.

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