|ALUMNI DAY SYMPOSIUM
Laureates Recount Paths to the Prize
In the 105-year history of the Nobel Prize, only 758 individuals and 18 organizations
have received the award. Four members of this select group reflected on the
influences and experiences that shaped their lives at the HMS Alumni Day Symposium
on June 23. Nobel laureates David Hubel, the John Franklin Enders professor
emeritus of neurobiology at HMS; Bernard Lown, HSPH professor emeritus of
cardiology; Thomas Weller, the Richard Pearson Strong professor emeritus of
tropical public health at HSPH; and Joseph Murray, HMS professor emeritus
of surgery, looked back with humor and perspective on the valuable collaborations
and serendipitous moments that allowed them to win the Nobel.
Photo by Liza Green, HMS Media Services
Childhood influences, fortuitous collaborations, stimulating
topics, and a bit of luck paved the way to the Nobel Prize, according to the
personal reflections of laureates (from left) Joseph Murray, Thomas Weller,
David Hubel, and Bernard Lown at the Alumni Day Symposium.
“It came as a thunderclap,” said Hubel of cutting short his
shower on a cold October morning to take a phone call telling him that he
Torsten Wiesel had been awarded the 1981 prize in physiology or medicine
for their neuroscience research in visual systems. “One has to realize
how huge a part luck has in the outcome of these things,” he said. Among
the factors in his path to the Nobel, Hubel cited small schools he attended
growing up in Canada and parents who let him alone to mix chemicals, “preferably
explosive ones,” in his basement laboratory.
A journalist collapsing
in cardiac arrest at a press conference proved lucky for Lown, though
unlucky for the journalist (who survived). Lown
accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 on behalf of International Physicians
of Nuclear War. He recalled that the conference had grown antagonistic,
with journalists believing the antiwar group to be “dupes of the Soviets.” Lown
quickly drew a comparison between the immediate response this single
cardiac patient received and the urgency of the global threat of nuclear
press turned more favorable, and Lown won an audience with Mikhail Gorbachev
to press his cause.
Weller’s youngest son fell ill with what appeared
to be a severe form of German measles at a time when the causative virus
had stymied virologists’ attempts
to isolate it. Weller, winner of the 1954 Nobel in physiology or medicine
for earlier work in isolating and growing cultures of the poliovirus,
then isolated the rubella virus from his own son.
Yet the Nobel Prize
clearly embodies more than luck. “The essence of
science is a network of collaboration,” said Lown, pointing out the
advance of knowledge through efforts of scientists over generations.
Murray, co-winner of the 1990 Nobel in physiology or medicine with E.
for discoveries in organ transplantation, said, “No one person is
responsible for medical progress. We depend on each other.” All emphasized
the many valuable partners, colleagues, and mentors with whom they interacted
Humorous anecdotes dominated their reminiscence, but the
enduring enthusiasm expressed by these laureates for their scientific
years of research is perhaps at the heart of their success. Hubel describes
research saying, “Every endeavor was like a fishing trip.”
in the technical challenges” of his work and said
he felt gratitude rather than pride for his Nobel Prize because of the
opportunities he had to help patients.
Looking to the future, Hubel,
reflecting on his own childhood experiences, espoused the value of small,
collaborative groups—whether in grade schools
or graduate laboratories. Lown acknowledged that doctors today are confronted
with a web of challenges, from war to poverty. He emphasized the need
to think of these not just in terms of our own country, but as global challenges,
can be no healthy United States in a sick world.”