Obituary Karl Zilles († 26.04.2020)

On April 26, 2020 our dear friend and highly esteemed colleague, Professor Emeritus Karl Zilles, passed away after a long and serious illness. Karl Zilles was director of the Institute of Medicine for many years, later of the Institute of Neurosciences and Biophysics and finally of the Institute of Neurosciences and Medicine at Forschungszentrum Jülich. For many years, he headed the C. and O. Vogt Institute for Brain Research at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf and he was the second head of the institute after the two eponyms, whose great tradition he revived.

Karl Zilles

Les Fleurs du Mal by Baudelaire, Adolf Wölflis amazing and impressive drawings, the architecture of Romanesque churches, arias by Maria Callas, concert performances by the Alban Berg Quartet of Schuberts works, the wild beauty of the Waimea Canyon and the African desert, Movies like Zardos or even a finely crafted Stanwell – these are just some facets of a rich, multifaceted and impressive personality who not only stood out in the field of neuroscience, but also contributed very wise thoughts on a wide range of topics, marked by deep knowledge and humanism.

Even if the concept of the universal scholar may have gone a little out of fashion today, it still characterizes Karl Zilles’ person quite accurately. He saw his commitment to science as a central part of his life, he was incredibly hard-working and productive, and with his creativity he initiated a number of important developments in modern brain research.

After studying medicine at the Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe University in Frankfurt, supported by the German National Academic Foundation, he went to the Institute of Anatomy at the Medical University in Hanover to work as a research assistant in neuroanatomy and habilitated there. From the very beginning, he was convinced that brain research needed measurable data and facts in order to understand the complicated relationships in the human cerebral cortex with its layers and cell columns and beyond. He was a pioneer in the introduction of television image analyzers and developed stereological methods to unravel the cellular architecture. After stations in Kiel and Cologne, he became director of the Neuroanatomy and the traditional C. and O. Vogt Institute for Brain Research at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf in 1991 and finally became director in Jülich in 1998.

His fundamental work and methodological developments on autoradiographic labeling of receptors for various neurotransmitters, comparative anatomical studies and the initiation of a group on polarized light imaging at Jülich are still of immense scientific importance today. Various research collaborations within Europe, but also with the USA and Canada gave rise to the idea of developing probability maps of the cellular architecture of the cerebral cortex in order to be able to map the great individual variability in the brain maps. This made it possible to merge the spatially precise maps of the human brain into atlases and databases of the human brain, which were created with the rapidly developing in-vivo neuroimaging. With his powers of motivation, his expertise, which was always astonishing in its depth and breadth, but also his ability to approach and convince others, he has made major contributions to the very fast development of this field of research. One indicator of his motivational strength that is still valid today is the Organization for Human Brain Mapping, which brings together more than 3000 participants in its annual congresses. Here, too, he was in a leading position and temporarily headed its council as chair.

Jülich offered the great prospect of an all-encompassing access to brain structure and function on campus and enabled him to set up neuroimaging as a "window" into the living brain and to bring together the various temporal and spatial aspects of its organization. A broad spectrum of working groups was created, many of which developed into institute departments. Quite a few of his doctoral students, staff members and guest researchers are now professors or hold leading positions elsewhere. He has supported, challenged and shaped more than just one generation of scientists, but always with the same high standards he has set for himself.

His scientific career and his great reputation have led him to many responsible positions – for example, as spokesman for a Collaborative Research Centre in Düsseldorf and a research associa-tion in Jülich. He was a driving force and (co-)editor of the journal Brain Structure and Function, which is highly regarded for its high quality.

His extensive work was honored with the Dr. Robert Pfleger Research Prize, and he was accepted into the Leopoldina and the Academy of Sciences and Arts in NRW. Karl Zilles was a highly re-spected scientist, but also a highly successful research manager.

I have had the pleasure of working with Karl Zilles since his time as director of brain research in Düsseldorf and have experienced him as a role model in academic teaching and research. He later brought me to Jülich, where I took over a research group and then, as director, was able to contin-ue and build on many of the paths he had mapped out. I see his activities as very central to the scientific orientation in Jülich and in Düsseldorf. His scientific collaborations opened the door to a European research landscape where we can today play a major role in shaping many areas. All this would be difficult to imagine without him.

Although Karl Zilles retired in 2012, he remained with the Institute as a JARA senior professor and was then able to devote himself entirely to his beloved work as a scientist. He recognized early on the importance of digitization and computer-aided work for brain research and became a committed partner and provider of ideas in this field as well. Many important publications were also produced during this last phase of his career, and it is not without reason that Karl Zilles was repeat-edly the most cited neuroscientist in Germany and one of the most cited authors in this field worldwide.

The staff of the Institute of Neuroscience, INM-1, of Forschungszentrum Jülich and of the C. and O. Vogt Institute of Brain Research are forever indebted to Karl Zilles – for his enormous commitment, his high research ethos, his role as an academic teacher in promoting young people, his helpfulness and support, and his deep humanity.

Karl, we will always keep an honorable memory of you.

Prof. Katrin Amunts
Director of the Institute of Neuroscience, INM-1, of Forschungszentrum Jülich and Director of the C. and O. Vogt Institute for Brain Research, Medical Faculty, Heinrich-Heine University Düsseldorf

Last Modified: 23.03.2022