Ahile the origins of sign language for people who are deaf or hard of hearing date back hundreds of years, its use has been heavily stigmatized as a lesser means of communication. Neuroscientist Ursula Bellugi has contributed significantly to reducing the stigma of American Sign Language (ASL) by showing that it is a complex language and not a truncated substitute for spoken language, as some critics had described it. Bellugi died on April 17 at the age of 91.
Bellugi was born in Jena, Germany on February 21, 1931, as Ursula Herzberger. Her father, Max, was an eminent mathematician and her mother, Edith, was an artist. In response to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and Max’s dwindling prospects as a Jewish scholar, the family left Germany in 1934 for upstate New York. According The New York Timeshis father’s friend and former teacher, Albert Einstein, helped him settle in Rochester and find a job in an optical laboratory for the Kodak photography company.
After graduating from high school, Bellugi attended Antioch College, a small private school near Dayton, Ohio, and received her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1952. In 1953, she married Pierro Bellugi, a famous chef orchestra and composer. The couple had two sons but eventually divorced in 1959.
Her work in psychology was shaped by an interest in language development, and she later moved to Massachusetts to work under Roger Brown at Harvard and MIT, where she studied language acquisition in children. While hustling as a single mother, she began taking classes at both universities, earning a doctorate in education from Harvard in 1967, and briefly serving as an associate professor there. Shortly thereafter, she married linguist Edward Klima, one of her former instructors at MIT, although she continued to use the Bellugi name professionally, the Time reports.
In 1968, the family moved to La Jolla, California. Bellugi took a job at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and frequently collaborated with her husband, who taught at the nearby University of California, San Diego. According to a statement from the Salk Institute, his research led to the discovery that speaking in sign language activated the brain in a similar way to spoken language and demonstrated enormous plasticity in the brain’s ability to understand and communicate via words. signs. This work earned Bellugi a place in the National Academy of Sciences in 2007.
“The kids were told to sit on their hands and try as hard as they could to fit into the hearing world,” Bellugi’s son Rob said. San Diego Union-Tribune. He adds that his mother and stepfather, who adopted him and his brother after they married their mother, “were able to prove that American Sign Language is a rich language with all the grammar and syntax you’ll find. in any spoken language. They defeated the FSA oppressors.
Two years after joining the Salk Institute, Bellugi became director of the institution’s Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, a position she held until her retirement in 2017. Over the years, she has also held faculty positions adjunct at UC San Diego and San Diego State University.
In addition to his contributions to ASL, Bellugi has also studied language development in people with autism or Williams syndrome. Williams syndrome is a condition in which a group of deleted genes affects the growth and maturation of the brain and therefore social and linguistic development. A 2018 statement from the Williams Syndrome Association credits Bellugi as the first Salk researcher “who studied people rather than the contents of a test tube or Petri dish.” Over the years, she has met more than 1,000 people with Williams Syndrome to learn about their language and social development.
In 2019, the Salk Institute renamed an award in his honor; the Ursula Bellugi Trailblazer Award is given annually to a woman who is making progress in STEM. Bellugi has co-authored over 250 articles throughout his career and has written The signs of languagea book that argued for ASL as a complete and complex language, in 1979 with Klima.
She was predeceased by her second husband and son David. She is survived by her sister and brother, her son Rob, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.