We are saddened to share that Donata Oertel, PhD, Mary Herman and Lucien Rubinstein Distinguished Chair of Neuroscience, passed away on April 22, 2020 after a prolonged illness. She was a member of the faculty for more than 38 years, and will be deeply missed as a colleague, leader, mentor, and friend.

In November 2014, Oertel became the founding chair of the Department of Neuroscience, which was created through the integration of the neuroanatomy, neurophysiology and neuropharmacology components of three departments. Earlier in her career and prior to the school's reorganization of the departments she served as chair of neurophysiology (beginning in 1996) and interim chair of physiology (beginning in 2009).

Donata Oertel
Donata Oertel

“Donata was truly remarkable in many ways: a creative scientist, a dedicated teacher and mentor and a selfless leader,” said Robert N. Golden, MD, Dean of the School of Medicine and Public Health. “I had the privilege of working closely with her over the past six years in her role as department chair. I was consistently impressed with the way in which every administrative decision she made, whether large or small, was shaped by her values, ethics, and humanity.”

A nationally renowned researcher in the neurobiology of hearing, Oertel earned her undergraduate degree in zoology at the University of California-Los Angeles, a doctorate from the University of California-Santa Barbara, and completed postdoctoral training at UW-Madison and Harvard. Her research program on how the brain perceives and processes sounds was internationally recognized. In 2018, Oertel was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in recognition of her work on the cellular basis for the processing of acoustic information in the mammalian cochlear nuclei, and for service to the neuroscience community. She and her research team helped the world understand how neurons translate sounds into meaningful information. Her work on mammalian auditory processing has been fundamental in elucidating how certain types of hearing loss occur.

When Oertel received a Hilldale Award from UW-Madison in 2014 in honor of her teaching, research, and service, her nominator Tom C.T. Yin, PhD (now professor emeritus) described the impact of her discoveries. “The body of work Dr. Oertel has produced in 30 years of continuously funded research on the auditory system represents a major advance in our understanding of how the brain processes and interprets sound. Her pioneering contributions to research have established her as a world leader, and a neuroscientist who brings visibility and prestige to this campus,” said Yin.

Underlying Oertel’s scholarly endeavors was her passion for teaching. Her teaching portfolio encompassed remarkable range, including at least 15 different academic courses and lectures across a spectrum of subjects. She had a gift for coalescing concepts from different disciplines into novel curricula, and her versatility as an inspiring and tireless teacher was truly remarkable.

Our thoughts are with Oertel’s husband, William Sugden, PhD, who holds the James A. Miller Professorship in Oncology, and their family. Please join us in honoring her memory and legacy.

Memorial fund to support student research

If you would like to make a gift to honor the legacy of Dr. Donata Oertel by supporting need-based undergraduate student research in neuroscience, please visit the University of Wisconsin Foundation using the link below.

We will share memorial information on this page when it is available. Members of the UW–Madison community and beyond are welcome to share tributes to her by emailing your memories to smphweb@uwhealth.org, and we will add them as comments below.

When I was an undergraduate at UCSB in the 1970s, Donata was our teaching assistant in the undergraduate Neurobiology Lab. Besides being a wonderful TA, Donata was the person who first introduced me to electrophysiology and ion channels, topics which I have spent my entire career studying. Her kindness, clarity, and dedication to teaching all had a big effect on me. I still have my student lab notebook from that class, with her comments and suggestions written in it.

As the years went by, we did our best to keep in touch and I even had the joy of visiting her and Bill in their home when I came to Madison to give a seminar on my research. I remember staying over in their guest room, surrounded by books (and therefore very comfy); the prior guest was Harold Varmus, and thus out of my league! I was quite at home, however, and very happy. It was a splendid visit.

Donata was a gifted teacher, a wonderful and impactful scientist, and a leader in neuroscience at Wisconsin as well. But it is mostly Donata the person whom I will most miss most, yet never forget.

Thank you, Donata.

— Dr. Les Satin, professor of pharmacology and director of the Neuroscience Graduate Program, University of Michigan