Winfried Denk was born in 1957 in Munich. From 1978 to 1981, he studied physics as an undergraduate at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, followed by further studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, where he was awarded a diploma in physics in 1984.
Professor Denk then moved to the U.S. to join the laboratory of biophysicist Watt Web at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, to pursue a PhD in measuring the motion of inner ear cells. He was awarded his PhD in 1990, and in the same year, announced the invention of two-photon microscopy, which he patented together with James Stickler and Watt Webb. Twophoton microscopy has since revolutionized fluorescence microscopy by enabling imaging of living tissue to greater depth (up to a millimeter) than was previously possible.
Professor Denk took up a postdoctoral position at the IBM Research Laboratory in Rueschlikon, Switzerland, and then crossed the Atlantic again in 1991 to spend the following eight years at the Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey.
In 1999, Professor Denk returned to Germany to become Director of the Department of Biomedical Optics at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, and since 2002 has also held the position of Professor in the Faculty of Physics, University of Heidelberg. He is also a Janelia Farm Scientist, spending one month per year at the Janelia Farm Research Campus, part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, in Virginia, where scientists are freed from grant application writing, administration, and teaching, and instead encouraged to pursue high-risk ventures.
It was in 2004 that Professor Denk reported his next major invention: serial block-face electron microscopy (SBEM). This automated tool creates high-resolution three-dimensional images from biological tissue. It enables features such as individual neurons to be visually isolated and viewed in multiple orientations using computer graphics.
Among his many prizes and awards, Professor Denk received the Rank Prize for Optoelectronics in 2000, followed by the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize in 2003, Germany's most prestigious research prize, from the German Research Foundation. In 2006, he gave the Fred Kavli Distinguished International Scientist Lecture at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting, and was awarded the W. Alden Spencer Lecture and Award at Columbia University in New York. In 2008 he gave the Henri Sacks lecture at Cornell University.