indeed a conscious system in its own right, perceiving, thinking, remembering, reasoning, willing, and emoting, all at a characteristically human level, and . . . both the left and the right hemisphere may be conscious simultaneously in different, even in mutually conflicting, mental experiences that run along in parallel— Roger Wolcott Sperry, 1974
In 1942, Sperry began work at the Yerkes Laboratories of Primate Biology, then a part of Harvard University. There he focused on experiments involving the rearranging of motor and sensory nerves. He left in 1946 to become an assistant professor, and later associate professor, at the University of Chicago. In 1949, during a routine chest x-ray, there was evidence of tuberculosis. He was sent to Saranac Lake in the Adironack Mountains in New York for treatment. It was during this time when he began writing his concepts of the mind and brain, and was first published in the American Scientist in 1952. In 1952, he became the Section Chief of Neurological Diseases and Blindness at the National Institutes of Health and finished out the year at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Coral Gables, FL. Sperry went back to The University of Chicago in 1952 and became an Associate Professor of Psychology. He was not offered tenure at Chicago and planned to move to Bethesda, Maryland but was held up by a delay in construction at the National Institutes of Health. During this time Sperry's friend Victor Hepburn invited him to lecture about his research at a symposium. There were professors from the California Institute of Technology in the audience of the symposium who, after listening to Sperry’s lecture, were so impressed with him they offered him a job as the Hixson Professor of Psychobiology. In 1954, he accepted the position as a professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech as Hixson Professor of Psychobiology) where he performed his most famous experiments with Joseph Bogen, MD and many students including Michael Gazzaniga.
In 1949, Sperry married Norma Gay Deupree. They had one son, Glenn Michael, and one daughter, Janeth Hope. Sperry was a quiet, thoughtful, and modest man with an insatiable curiosity. He never stopped working, questioning, or learning up until his death in 1994 of ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease. You could often find Sperry in his office with his feet propped up on his desk scribbling in his notebook or deep in thought. Sperry was an avid Paleontologist and displayed his large fossil collection in his home. He was also a very talented Sculptor, Artist, and ceramicist. He enjoyed going on camping and fishing trips with his wife and children in Baja, California.
Sperry was granted numerous awards over his lifetime, including the California Scientist of the Year Award in 1972, the National Medal of Science in 1989, the Wolf Prize in Medicine in 1979, and the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award in 1979, and the Nobel Prize for Medicine/Physiology in 1981 that he shared with David H. Hubel and Torsten N. Wiesel. Sperry won this award for his work with "split-brain" patients. The brain is divided into two hemispheres, the left and right hemispheres, connected in the middle by a part of the brain called the corpus callosum. In "split-brain" patients, the corpus callosum has been severed due to the patients suffering from epilepsy, a disease that causes intense and persistent seizures. Seizures begin in one hemisphere and continue into the other hemisphere. Cutting the corpus callosum prevents the seizures from moving from one hemisphere to the other, which then prevents seizures from occurring, thus allowing the patients to function normally instead of suffering from continuous seizures.
This research contributed greatly to understanding the lateralization of brain function. In 1989, Sperry also received the National Medal of Science. Afterwards in 1993, Sperry received the Lifetime Achievement Award from APA.
In the words of a 2009 review article in Science magazine: "He suggested that gradients of such identification tags on retinal neurons and on the target cells in the brain coordinately guide the orderly projection of millions of developing retinal axons. This idea was supported by the identification and genetic analysis of axon guidance molecules, including those that direct development of the vertebrate visual system." This was confirmed in the seventies by Marshall W. Nirenberg's work on chick retinas and later on Drosophila melanogaster larvae.
In another series of experiments further examining the lateralization of language in the left and right hemispheres, Sperry presented one object to the left visual field and a different object to the right visual field of the "split-brain" patients. The patient’s left hand was put under a partition and then the patient was asked to draw with their left hand what they had been shown. The patients would draw what they had seen in their left visual field, but when asked what they had drawn would describe what had been shown to their right visual field. These tests proved that when the corpus callosum is severed, it breaks the connection between the left and right hemispheres, making them unable to communicate with each other. Not only are they unable to communicate with each other, but also without the corpus callosum connecting them one hemisphere has no idea that the other hemisphere even exists. There was even evidence of this outside the laboratory when some of the patients reported that, "while their left hand was unbuttoning their shirt, the right hand would follow along behind and button it again." These experiments were beneficial to numerous people in many different ways.