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Obituary: Russell De Valois

08 October 2003

Russell De Valois
Russell L. De Valois, a professor of psychology and vision science whose experiments resolved a century-old debate about color vision and generated new ideas about spatial vision, died Sept. 20 as the result of an auto accident.

De Valois, 76, was a passenger in a car that crashed in Rock Springs, Wyo., on Sept. 10. He lapsed into a coma and died 10 days later at the University of Utah Medical Center in Salt Lake City. His wife, Karen De Valois, also a Berkeley professor of psychology and vision science, was injured in the accident, but has been released from the hospital.

“He was a pioneer in trying to explain how psychophysical phenomena, such as how we discriminate colors and describe subjective differences in color, are related to neuronal activity,” says longtime colleague and collaborator Eugene Switkes, professor of chemistry at UC Santa Cruz and an affiliate of Berkeley’s School of Optometry.

At the time of his death, De Valois was working on a new theory of how brain cells encode information about motion. “Typical of Russ, it’s an outrageous theory that probably has more truth than outrage to it,” says Switkes.

De Valois, who also held appointments in the campus’s School of Optometry and Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, sometimes used humans and monkeys in behavioral visual tests. More often, his experiments involved inserting electrodes into the brains of macaques and cats to determine how individual brain cells respond to color, form, images, or movement. These animal studies, which De Valois continued until just a few years ago, could contribute to the development of visual prostheses for the blind, Switkes notes.

De Valois was born in Ames, Iowa, in 1926. He attended Oberlin College, and received his Ph.D. in physiological psychology from the University of Michigan in 1952. He joined the faculty at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he first made a name for himself by describing the brain mechanisms behind color vision. In 1968 he joined the faculty at Berkeley, where he continued his vision research, often in collaboration with his wife of 34 years, Karen (Kennedy) De Valois.

He is survived by his wife; two children with her, Chad of Oakland and Kamala De Valois of Berkeley; three children by a previous marriage, Geoffrey of Los Angeles, Gregory of San Jose, and Gordon of Oakland; a son-in-law, Michael Ellis, of Berkeley; sisters Margaret Van Anrooy of Woodland Park, Colo., and Francine Schramm of Brookfield, Wisc.; a brother, John James De Valois Jr., of Redwood City; two grandchildren; and numerous nieces and nephews.
Plans are being made for a memorial service.

— Robert Sanders