We are sad to report the passing on April 17 of Ursula Bellugi, H-’09. Says President Cordano, “Dr. Bellugi was a pioneer in American Sign Language research. Her work on the biological foundations of language showed that the brain processes signed languages just as it processes spoken languages. This was a critical discovery for deaf people as it verified that our language is treated equally by the brain — just as we must be treated equally by society.

“Dr. Bellugi also worked tirelessly to recruit Deaf people to work in her laboratory, ensuring that they were included in the study of sign language. She has left an enduring legacy that new generations of Deaf and sign language-fluent researchers will build upon to show the potential and importance of sign language for brain development for all people.”

According to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, Dr. Bellugi also “was known for constantly seeking new avenues for illuminating the ties between neural and cognitive functions. Her expertise in neurobiological, genetic, and behavioral studies allowed humanity to better understand Williams syndrome—a puzzling genetic disorder that results in low IQ and strong desire for social interactions—and autism. While people with autism usually shy away from social interactions and eye contact, Williams syndrome patients do exactly the opposite, seeking out interactions with people. Bellugi used imaging technologies to visualize how related gene deletions alter brain activity, mapping the affected neural circuits and developing stem cell reprogramming techniques to unveil the underlying biological basis for these drastically different disorders. Together, her studies on Williams syndrome, autism and sign language helped paint a picture of the biology humans use to interact with the world around us.”

Dr. Bellugi was born in Germany in 1931. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Antioch College and her doctorate from Harvard University. During her lifetime, she received numerous awards, including the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association. She was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the advisory council of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. She was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Deaf Studies professor Benjamin J. Bahan, ’79, who directs Gallaudet’s Gestural Literacy Knowledge Center, worked in Dr. Bellugi’s laboratory at the Salk Institute early in his career. He wrote, “Dr. Bellugi’s biggest contribution was finding that sign language lights up in the same area of the brain as spoken language, giving proof of the linguistic nature of signs that differs from gestural communication.” 

91 awarded Dr. Bellugi an honorary Doctor of Science degree in 2009.

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