“A True Neuroscience Pioneer:” Dr. Mary Bartlett Bunge Passes Away

The renowned and beloved scientist-mentor leaves behind towering achievements in spinal cord injury research.

University of Miami professor emeritus Mary Bartlett Bunge
Mary Bartlett Bunge, Ph.D.

Mary Bartlett Bunge, Ph.D., professor emeritus of cell biology, neurological surgery and neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, passed away on February 17 at age 92.

A passionate researcher who joined the University of Miami faculty in 1989, Dr. Bunge made numerous important discoveries related to spinal cord injury at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. Her friends and colleagues at the Miller School are expressing sorrow for her passing and appreciation for her many contributions.

“Dr. Mary Bunge was an exceptional scientist and visionary with a passion for developing novel strategies to repair the nervous system,” said W. Dalton Dietrich, Ph.D., scientific director of The Miami Project and senior associate dean for discovery science. “Her research was instrumental in allowing scientists to critically evaluate Schwann cell transplantation in people living with spinal cord injury.”

“My respected and revered colleague of 35 years has left our team with an unfillable void,” said Barth A. Green, M.D., chair of The Miami Project and executive dean for global health and community service. “Mary was not just a world-renowned scientific innovator and mentor to thousands of colleagues and students, but also a role model in leadership, thereby distinguishing herself as one of a kind. In fact, the term ‘role model’ should have been embroidered on her laboratory coat.” 

“Dr. Mary Bunge was a true neuroscience pioneer, paving the way for countless careers in discovery science,” said Marc Buoniconti, senior director for advocacy and donor relations at The Miami Project. “Her lifelong dedication to the University of Miami and The Miami Project’s mission of seeking a cure for paralysis has produced truly groundbreaking research that will change lives for those living with paralysis. I really enjoyed our friendship and conversations, and she will be greatly missed by me and all who knew her.”

Devoted Teacher and Mentor

Dr. Bunge also was a devoted teacher and mentor. She trained numerous graduate and postdoctoral fellows who went on to become leaders in the fields of cell biology, neuroscience, and Schwann cell transplantation.

“Dr. Mary Bunge combined precision and flair in her scientific work, which was characterized by the finest quality, especially in her scientific images,” said James D. Guest, M.D., Ph.D., professor of neurological surgery at the Miller School. “This extended from her career-long love of electron microscopy and, in parallel, visual arts. She imbued this passion for excellence and detail into a generation of neuroscientists. Her work elevated the entire spinal cord injury field.”

“Mary’s passing represents an incredibly sad time for The Miami Project, neurosurgery faculty and staff, and all her trainees,” said Allan D. Levi, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of neurological surgery. “Her research on Schwann cells and spinal cord injury was an inspiration for countless scientists, including myself.”

A Lifelong Passion for Biology

As a child, Mary Bartlett began developing her passion for biology while observing tadpoles swimming around her, and she questioned how they developed into frogs. During her junior year in college, she was further inspired by a summer school in Bar Harbor, Maine, where she was first exposed to tissue culture. After graduating from Boston’s Simmons College in 1953, she accepted an invitation to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, where she graduated with a master’s degree in medical physiology in 1955 and her doctorate in 1960.

While at the University of Wisconsin, she met a medical student named Richard Bunge, whom she married and who shared her career. Working together, they published the first evidence of remyelination by oligodendrocytes in the spinal cord in 1961. Together, they moved to Columbia University in New York, where they began their career-long work on the biology of Schwann cells, and where their two sons were born.

Dr. Bunge was one of the earliest to master electron microscopy, which combined her passion for cell biology with artistic expression and allowed her to observe synapses in tissue culture. After moving to Boston for a sabbatical at Harvard, they moved to St. Louis in 1970 to accept faculty positions at Washington University School of Medicine where, in 1974, Dr. Bunge was promoted with tenure to associate professor of cell biology, neurological surgery and neurology and, in 1978, became professor.

During their years in St. Louis, Dr. Bunge and her research team made several important discoveries while studying Schwann cells in tissue culture and their ability to wrap around peripheral axons to form the myelin sheath that increases the speed of impulse conduction down the axon. Through their meticulous use of tissue culture, methods were found to isolate Schwann cells from neurons, which led to new hypotheses regarding repairing the nervous system after injury. Based on this work, the Bunge laboratory focused on determining whether Schwann cell transplantation into the injured spinal cord would promote successful axonal regeneration by making the injured tissue be more permissive for successful axonal growth.

Dr. Bunge mentored a succession of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who paved the way through translational studies for current and future FDA-approved clinical trials using autologous human Schwann cells as a novel strategy to repair the spinal cord and peripheral nerves after severe trauma. Her husband passed away in 1996, but Dr. Bunge continued the work through to its clinical realization to support recovery in people after spinal cord injury. Together, they greatly elevated the scientific standing of The Miami Project, which was formed in 1985. 

Honors and Accolades

Dr. Bunge received many national and international honors during her career, including the Wakeman Award for Research in the Neurosciences, and she was a three-time recipient of the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. She served as chair of the Society for Neuroscience Development of Women’s Careers in Neuroscience Committee from 1994 to 2002.

In 2000, she received the Mika Salpeter Lifetime Achievement Award for her leadership in advancing the careers of women in neuroscience. In 2001, she received the Christopher Reeve Research Medal for Spinal Cord Injury Repair. She was elected to the National Academy of Medicine and was awarded the Health Care Hero Lifetime Achievement Award by the Greater Miami Chapter Chamber of Commerce.

Dr. Bunge also received the Christine Lynn Distinguished Professor in Neuroscience Award in 2003 and the Lois Pope LIFE International Research Award in 2005. Upon receiving this award, she donated the money to the University of Miami to establish a lecture series to bring prominent women researchers doing groundbreaking work in cell biology to our campus annually. In 2012, Dr. Bunge received the University of Miami Faculty Senate Distinguished Faculty Scholar Award. The American Spinal Injury Association awarded the Bunges the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.

On February 6, just days before her death, Dr. Bunge listened to the 19th Annual Mary Bartlett Bunge Distinguished Women in Cell Biology Lecture, demonstrating that her enduring passion for science remained with her until the end.

Dr. Bunge is survived by her two sons, Jon Bunge of New York City, and Peter Bunge and his wife, Connie, of Seattle. A memorial service is being planned for May, with further details forthcoming.