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June 28, 2022

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Biologist Ursula Bellugi, who helped establish authenticity of American Sign Language, dies at 91

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SAN DIEGO — Ursula Bellugi, the Salk Institute neurobiologist who helped erase the stigma attached to American Sign Language by proving that it is a rich, authentic and nuanced way to communicate, died Sunday in La Jolla. She was 91.

The institute said Bellugi died peacefully, leaving a legacy that also includes the important discoveries she made about Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder in which people tend to be highly social but have learning deficits.

She is further known for pushing past the hostility that many male scientists once openly expressed toward female researchers. Bellugi helped the Salk emerge as an elite center for the biological sciences after its opening above Blacks Beach in the 1960s.

“The humanity and compassion she brought to her work was truly special and our community will miss her dearly,” Salk President Rusty Gage said in a statement.

Bellugi, who was Jewish, was born on Feb. 21, 1931 in Jena, Germany, around the time Adolf Hitler was rising to power.

Her father was Max Herzberger, a renowned mathematician, physicist and optics expert who studied under Albert Einstein. Her mother, Edith, was an artist.

Three years after Bellugi was born her father lost his professorship at the University of Jena and his collaboration with the Zeiss Optical Company because he was Jewish.

He soon fled Germany with his wife and three children, emigrating to Rochester, New York, where Einstein had arranged for him to become director of optical research at Kodak. At the time, the family only had $10 between them.

Ursula Bellugi went on to a prosperous life, benefiting at many turns from timely and important connections.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Ohio’s Antioch College in 1952, during a period of time when scientists were beginning to make big advances in understanding the biology and chemistry of the brain, including how people process language.

Two years later, she married Italian conductor Piero Bellugi, with whom she had two children, Rob and David. The union didn’t last. She divorced and later married Edward Klima, a prominent Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher who had studied under Noam Chomsky and whose insights about the biological basis of language upended science.

Bellugi continued her studies, earning a doctorate in education at Harvard in 1967. Her adviser was famed social psychologist Roger Brown, an expert in the ways in which children acquire language.

Shortly after she graduated, Bellugi and her husband moved to La Jolla, where she joined the faculty at Salk and he did the same across the street, at the University of California, San Diego.

The institute’s founder — polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk — told new recruits such as Bellugi “pursue your own ideas.”

She was soon doing just that with her husband. They formed a long and deep collaboration that came to focus on the biological factors that influence American Sign Language, or ASL, which had yet to earn broad acceptance by scientists and the general public.

“Back then, parents were discouraged from allowing their children to use sign language,” said Rob Klima of San Diego, one of Ursula Bellugi’s two children. (He was later adopted by Klima.)

“Children were told that they should sit on their hands and try as hard as they could to integrate with the hearing world,” Klima recalled. “My mother and father were able to prove that American Sign Language is a rich language with all of the grammar and syntax that you would find in any spoken language. They defeated the oppressors of ASL.”

The couple recounted their work in “The Signs of Language,” a widely praised book that greatly changed how people thought of various types of sign languages following its release in 1979.

Ursula Bellugi went on to make major discoveries about the biological nature of Williams syndrome, a developmental disorder that typically leads to unusual facial features in children, such as a broad forehead and small chin. The disorder also is characterized by learning deficits and highly social behavior.

“When Ursula first arrived at the Salk Institute, she was the only researcher there who studied people rather than the contents of a test tube or a petri dish,” the Williams Syndrome Association said in a 2018 tribute to Bellugi.

“That alone was groundbreaking, but she pushed the limit even further when she began studying Williams syndrome in the early ‘80s and invited several other scientists to join her studies, which were aimed at linking the brain, cognition and genetics,” the association said. “She then insisted that those other scientists get to know Williams syndrome ‘up close and personal,’ inviting colleagues to attend family gatherings she would regularly host at the Salk.

“As a result, these scientists who were looking at brain neurons, or a slice of brain tissue, or stem cells of children with Williams syndrome, began to take a new interest in Williams syndrome and look at their slides with a much more personal view.”

Her professional accomplishments did not go unnoticed. In 2007, Bellugi was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the elite group that was founded during the Lincoln administration to advise Congress on science and technology.

The academy’s members have included such luminaries as Einstein and the late Salk researcher Francis Crick, who shared the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine for co-discovering the structure of DNA.

Bellugi found great joy in working, which became apparent in 2015 when The San Diego Union-Tribune asked her why she was still in the lab at age 84. With a smile, she said, “I have a passion for this. I don’t know how to explain it any other way.”

The Salk said in a statement that Bellugi “is survived by her son Rob Klima, her sister Ruth Rosenberg, her brother Hans Herzberger, as well as four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.”

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