Skip to content

A love affair with science…the passion of Dr. Mary Bartlett Bunge

Dr. Mary Bartlett Bunge
A love affair with science…the passion of Dr. Mary Bartlett Bunge

Fashion designer… child psychiatrist…biologist…all were potential career paths in the heart of a young Mary Elizabeth Bartlett, later to be known as Dr. Mary Bartlett Bunge.  Thankfully, biology won out!  And, in reality, the scientific community won out when you think about all of her contributions.

As a young girl growing up in the woods of Connecticut, Mary used to row her little leaky row boat along a stream looking at the tadpoles in the water.  Her curiosity peaked, wondering how tadpoles develop into frogs?  Later, she began taking biology classes in school and loved the single cell animals that she was assigned to draw.  Becoming enthralled, she decided that biology was the career for her.  1st defining moment.  After high school at Northfield School for Girls, she attended Simmons College to earn her Bachelors of Science degree.  While there, she took a summer course at Jackson Laboratories in Bar Harbor that changed the course of her life. One day she put rabbit heart muscle into tissue culture and days later saw it still beating.  2nd defining moment.  Mary graduated in 1953 and went on to the University of Wisconsin (UW) to earn her Master’s and Doctoral degrees.  At UW, her Master’s mentor was Dr. Robert Schilling; they studied intrinsic factor in gastric juice and its role in binding vitamin B12.  “I saw him recently.  He’s now 90 years old, still working.  He said that our papers published in 1956 and 1957 are still highly regarded.”  But Mary wasn’t really interested in intrinsic factor and pernicious anemia.  She had taken a course in cell biology with a prominent cell biologist, Dr. Hans Ris, and had looked at images in the electron microscope.  3rd defining moment.  “We were using one of the first electron microscopes in the United States; we had to hammer the lenses into place.  But still, the images were so captivating.”  This led her to decide to work towards the PhD degree with Dr. Ris.

The final moment to seal her career path in science, and forever fuel her passion, came when she met Richard Bunge in her classes.  “There was this lanky looking guy.  I used to sit in the front row and he sat in the front row at the other end.  Then, for a summer Richard worked in Dr. Schilling’s lab, on blood samples in the cold room.  I didn’t see him during the day.  Then at 5 he would vanish into the hospital cafeteria where he washed dishes to help support himself while in medical school.  I thought, this guy needs fresh air.  I invited him to go sailing and that’s how we got to know each other.  When the wind died down in the middle of Lake Mendota we had wonderful long conversations.  Dick was going to medical school so he could be a missionary; his hero was Albert Schweitzer.”  From this passion bloomed a lifelong collaboration.  Between earning her MS and PhD, Mary Bartlett became Mary Bartlett Bunge.  And Richard changed his mind about becoming a missionary in favor of pursuing research.   “He really introduced me to neuroscience.  From the PhD work on, we worked together for 40 years.”

While at UW, the Bunges demonstrated that, after a demyelinating lesion, myelin could be reformed in the mature mammalian spinal cord, a first.  Then the question arose whether initial myelin formation in development was the same as during remyelination in the adult.  The mechanism of central nervous system (CNS) myelination was unknown at the time.  “When I put a section of kitten spinal cord into the electron microscope, there in the first area of the first section I looked at, was an image like the old fashioned ice tongs with the oligodendrocyte cell body at the top and  two cytoplasmic arms coming off the cell body where myelin was forming at the end of each arm.  And that’s how I discovered that the oligodendrocyte was the cell that made the myelin sheath for the CNS.  That was one of my big moments in research.”

Their path to eventually study Schwann cells involved a 10 year “stint” at Columbia Presbyterian College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York.  They worked with a very famous woman, Dr. Margaret Murray, who helped develop nerve tissue culture.  It was there that Mary and Dick made one of their seminal contributions to science.  They were the first to describe synapse formation in tissue culture.  It was also in New York that their two sons were born, Jonathan and Peter.  Mary worked part-time initially, but demonstrated that she could successfully juggle motherhood and a full-time career in science and, in 1978, she was promoted to full professor.  In 1970, the Bunges had moved to Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and began dissecting peripheral nerve tissue so they could grow purified populations of nerve cells or Schwann cells or mixed populations of both.  Enter Dr. Patrick Wood, who, with Dick, developed the culture techniques to better understand the basic biology of Schwann cells.  The trio began learning more about the interactions between Schwann cells and neurons.  Whereas Mary and Pat were basic scientists, Dick was trained in medical school and their overarching goal was to make their research clinically relevant.  Initially, they focused primarily on multiple sclerosis and remyelination.  But in 1988, Dick received a call from Åke Seiger and Barth Green about his interest in becoming the Scientific Director of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.  The Bunge-Wood lab had begun some preliminary studies involving Schwann cell transplantation in spinal cord injury (SCI), but Mary and Dick thought that that this would be an opportunity for them to assemble a larger team focused on SCI and eventually lead to transplantation of Schwann cells into humans with SCI.  So they decided to move south to Miami!  But they had been at Wash. U. for 18 years and it was one of the best places in the world to do their work.  People said, “You’re going where?  You’re going to do what?”  Dick, however, believed in the quote by Goethe “When the harbor feels safe, it’s time to leave” and that was his guiding principle.  Miami needed the Bunges and the Bunges desired a new challenge…a match made in heaven.

Though moving their lab all the way to Miami was a challenge, Mary Bartlett Bunge and Dick enjoyed their new surroundings.  In the lab, they delved further into Schwann cell transplantation for SCI.  To begin addressing axonal regeneration, they would create a complete gap of several millimeters in the rat spinal cord and place a polymer channel filled with purified Schwann cells in the gap with each end of the cut spinal cord inserted into the channel to form a bridge, a new research model.  They saw regeneration of injured axons into the bridge!  By this time, the Bunge lab had become one of the preeminent SCI labs in the world.  Dick had also been busy recruiting a comprehensive team of scientists to the Miami Project, making it the leading center for SCI research.  At the height of their success came misfortune, however.  In 1996, Dick lost his battle with esophageal cancer.  Mary lost her partner, but not her passion.  With her own inner strength, the love of her sons, and the support of the Miami Project family, Mary forged on and continued leading the SCI field.  She realized that Schwann cells by themselves were not enough to repair the injured spinal cord so her lab began developing combination strategies.  They combined Schwann cells with a variety of other strategies, such as olfactory ensheathing cells, growth factors, chondroitinase (a scar modulating enzyme), and Rolipram (a drug that elevates cyclic AMP).  In 2004, she and a post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Damien Pearse, demonstrated that a triple treatment combination of Schwann cells, Rolipram, and additional cyclic AMP was very effective in protecting the spinal cord after injury, promoting regeneration of damaged axons, and significantly improving locomotor function.  These collective results, as well as Dr. Pat Wood’s expertise in culturing human Schwann cells, were enough to convince the Miami Project to forge ahead with all the pre-clinical safety experiments necessary to seek FDA approval for autologous human Schwann cell transplantation trials.

After a 64 year career in science, Mary Bartlett Bunge is finally ready to retire.  But she will continue to try to focus on the projects closest to her heart and find more time for her non-science passions.  “I love movies, I love books, and walking, I walk every day.  I like Pilates, I’ve started that, and gardening, I love to work in the yard.  I love gourmet food and have been watching cooking shows on some weekends!”  What few may know is that Mary is an avid art aficionado.  “I go to New York and Jonathan, my son, and I have art days when we visit galleries and view art shows.  Glass sculpture is one of my passions.”  In fact, Mary commissioned and donated a museum-quality glass sculpture, by artist Jon Kuhn, to the University of Miami in honor and remembrance of Dick in 2001.  Not only has Mary written over 160 scientific papers and reviews, but after Dick passed away she began writing limericks as well.  “I write limericks when people leave the lab.”  Having trained over 20 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows since then, not to mention the myriad of undergraduate students, high school students, and technical staff, we should be encouraging her to publish a collection soon!

When a young female scientist comes fresh out of training and into the SCI research field, they look up to Mary Bartlett Bunge with awe, and maybe a little bit of intimidation!  She is undoubtedly the grand dame of our field.  A mere glimpse of her accomplishments include being elected to the Institute of Medicine in 2013, a member of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation International Research Consortium from 1995-2009, receiving the prestigious Wakeman award in 1996 for her seminal contributions to the understanding of SCI repair, the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from 1998-2005 from the National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke (for which she served on its Council), and the Christopher Reeve Research Medal for Spinal Cord Repair in 2001.  She served on the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine Committee on Spinal Cord Injury from 2003-2005, and received an honorary doctoral degree in Humane Science from her undergraduate alma mater, Simmons College, in 2006.  Mary has also been awarded for her leadership in advancing women in neuroscience.  She was the inaugural recipient of the Mika Salpeter Women in Neuroscience Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.  She received the Florida Woman of Achievement Award in 2002 and became the Christine E. Lynn Distinguished Professor in Neuroscience in 2003.

All in all, Mary Bartlett Bunge is a role model for all of us regardless of our track in life.  She’s smart, hard working, compassionate, and down to earth.  So next time you see Mary, don’t be intimidated.  Say “hi” and say thank you for your passion.