Foundation Receives Bequest from Former Scholar

Jerry Simpson (1939-2020)

In March 2020, the Foundation received the sad news that one of the earliest Churchill Scholars, John “Jerry” Simpson (Physiology, 1964-65), passed away following a long period of hospitalization. Jerry was Professor Emeritus at the Department of Neuroscience and Physiology, NYU Langone Health. He specialized in the neurophysiology of cerebellar neurons and their relation to the control of eye movements.

Jerry arrived in Cambridge with the second class of Churchill Scholars in 1964. A graduate of RPI in Mechanical Engineering, he was already enrolled at MIT when he took the Scholarship. At Cambridge, he studied neuroscience before there was a word for the discipline. This set him on a career of researching the cerebellum and to work with international collaborators in Japan and the Netherlands.

His research centered around single cell neurophysiology of cerebellar neurons and their relation to the control of eye movements. One of his major contributions was the discovery that retinal image slip modulates activity of climbing fibers of compartmentalized zones in the vestibulo-cerebellum, such that this modulation is optimal when the visual field rotates around one of the three virtual axes of the semicircular canal pairs.

Jerry finished his PhD at MIT and held a faculty position at the University of Iowa before becoming a Professor of Neuroscience and Physiology at NYU Langone Health. His wife of 51 years, Diane Simpson, passed away in January, 2021. She had been a professor of psychology, artist, calligrapher, and playwright.

Jerry’s scientific legacy will now continue through future Churchill Scholars. He has left the Foundation a bequest that represents the largest-ever gift from a former Scholar. (Jerry also left a major gift to the Society for Neuroscience.) With his initial bequest, Jerry’s giving to the Foundation stands at nearly $1million. His will establishes a charitable trust that may lead to further gifts to the Foundation in the future.

To say that this gift is transformative is an understatement. Unlike other scholarships, such as the Rhodes or Gates Cambridge, the Churchill Scholarship did not start with an endowment. This is a grass-roots organization that has relied on donations both to meet our annual expenses and to save for the future. Jerry’s gift opens a new chapter in our history because it is the first time that a major gift from a former Scholar can be added directly to our investment reserves, rather than balance our annual expenses.

The Board of Trustees voted to recognize Jerry’s generosity by naming an annual Simpson Churchill Scholar going forward. The award will go to the Churchill Scholar whose research is most closely aligned with Jerry’s.