Harvard's Nobel Laureates in Medicine
“for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability.”
William Kaelin, the Sidney Farber Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a professor of medicine at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, is one of three winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. He shares the award with Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe of the University of Oxford and the Francis Crick Institute, and Gregg L. Semenza of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The three were cited jointly for the discovery of the pathway by which cells from humans and most animals sense and adapt to changes in oxygen availability, a process essential for survival.
“for pioneering work in the discovery of telomerase, an enzyme that protects chromosomes from degrading.”
What began as a simple question regarding yeast cells, has broadened the scientific community’s understanding of aging and death on the cellular level, and quite possibly, our bodies as a whole. Described as a “scientist’s scientist,” Szostak has been studying the ends of chromosomes and a special enzyme, called telomerase, which helps hold the ends of chromosomes together and protect them from deterioration. In his research, he discovered that some cells whose telomeres do not activate normally have a way of evading destruction – enter cancer cells – and this finding has brought forth a flood of larger questions surrounding cancer research and the aging process. British born, Jack Szostak is a Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and the affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. Since his award-winning reaching on telomeres, Szostak has shifted his intellectual curiosity from the death of cells, to the genesis of life itself as co-director of the Origins of Life Initiate at Harvard University.
“For discoveries of “odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system.”
Buck received the Nobel Prize for work relating to the sense of smell, which the Nobel committee noted had “long remained the most enigmatic of our senses. The basic principles for recognizing and remembering about 10,000 different odours were not understood.” Buck and Richard Axel, with whom she shared the prize, published the fundamental paper describing odorant receptors in 1991. That year Buck became an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. “The discoveries on the organization of the olfactory system that were cited by the Nobel Foundation were made over a period of 10 years, during which I was a faculty member at Harvard,” she said. Since 2002, Buck has been at the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
Developed new procedures for organ transplants (with E. Donnall Thomas, formerly of the University of Washington)
The ambidextrous Murray, who performed the first successful human kidney transplant, is one of the few surgeon-scientists to win the Nobel. Although committed to his lab work, Murray’s first concern has always been the patient. During World War II, doing reparative surgery, particularly with burns patients, Murray became intrigued by the dynamics of tissue rejection and acceptance, leading him to his interest in transplant surgery.
Research on information-processing in the visual system (with David Hubel)
When told he’d been awarded the Nobel Prize, Wiesel said, “Oh, no, I was afraid of that! I better go and hide.” For Wiesel, what really counts is the research and its results, like improvements in the treatment of congenital cataracts and other blinding conditions found in children. Wiesel is President Emeritus of The Rockefeller University.
Research on information-processing in the visual system (with Torsten Wiesel)
In a partnership spanning decades, Hubel and Torsten Wiesel have provided the basis for our understanding of how the brain analyzes visual information. The pair describe their work as a 50-50 effort. Says Hubel, “It’s been a real Gilbert and Sullivan sort of thing. Not that we would compare ourselves to those celestial people, but they did do different things and you wouldn’t say one did more than the other.” Hubel is John Franklin Enders University Professor of Neurobiology and Senior Fellow of the Society of Fellows.
Discovered that disease-fighting ability is passed on genetically, although the immune-response gene varies from person to person
Benacerraf’s discovery has several dramatic applications, helping us to understand: 1) the body’s ability to repel microbial invasions, 2) the mechanism by which the body accepts or rejects skin grafts or organ transplants, and 3) the growth of tumors, invaders that outwit or fool the body’s defense system. Benacerraf is the George Fabyan Professor of Comparative Pathology Emeritus.
Research on the biochemistry of vision
Wald contributed greatly to our knowledge of the human eye, particularly the visual pigments and how light affects them. He was on the forefront of the revolution that changed biology from a cellular to a molecular science. An early and outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, Wald was always a lively, engaged, and formidable figure in the political arena.
Studied the pattern of reactions involved in the biosynthesis of cholesterol and fatty acids
Bloch’s painstaking research helped cap the half-century dubbed the “Golden Age of Biochemistry.” Determined to communicate with the intelligent layperson outside of the scientific community, the emeritus professor in (1994) published a book of lively pieces titled Blondes in Venetian Paintings, The Nine-Banded Armadillo, and other Essays in Biochemistry, which demonstrates (among other things) that many Renaissance portraits featured “bottle blondes.”
Described the structure of DNA
In 1953, at the tender age of 25, the enfant terrible Watson, with British scientist Francis Crick, presented a model for DNA, beating Linus Pauling in a neck-and-neck race to one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the 20th century. His controversial book, The Double Helix, “has been called,” says The New York Times, “the most honest book ever written about scientific research.” Watson is currently president of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y.
Demonstrated the physical principles involved in the mechanism of hearing
This engineer, who in his youth was intrigued by the high-pitched Gypsy music of his native Hungary, has been lauded for “fathoming the enigmas and disclosing the elegance of the auditory system.” His delicate engineering feats included the design of special scissors, whose blades were a few thousandths of an inch long, to manipulate the cochlea, a minute structure in the inner ear.
Application of tissue-culture methods to the study of viral diseases (with J.F. Enders and F.C. Robbins)
In addition to his work on the polio virus, Weller made significant contributions to the study of human parasites and the viruses that cause rubella (German measles) and chicken pox. Later in his career, Weller distinguished himself as an administrator, serving as director of the Center for Prevention of Infectious Diseases at Harvard’s School of Public Health, where he significantly advanced the School’s international reputation. Weller is the Richard Pearson Strong Professor of Tropical Public Health Emeritus.
Application of tissue-culture methods to the study of viral diseases (with J.F. Enders and T.H. Weller)
At Harvard Medical School in the late 1930s, Robbins studied with John Enders and roomed with Thomas Weller. After earning his M.D., he served in North Africa and Italy during the war, investigating bacterial diseases. He was awarded a Bronze Star. By 1950, he was back with his old college colleagues, Enders and Weller, doing the experiments which led to their Nobel Prize — and a vaccine for polio.
Application of tissue-culture methods in developing a polio virus, the ingredient of the polio vaccine (with F.C. Robbins and T.H. Weller)
Without Enders’ subtle triumph of learning how to grow a virus, the more celebrated Jonas Salk would have been unable to bring his own work to its powerful conclusion. In addition to his many achievements in human biology, “The Chief,” as Enders was called, was esteemed for his impeccable standards of personal and scientific honesty.
Identified “coenzyme A” and discovered basic principles in the understanding of proteins
A slow starter and a self-admitted failure at academic politics, Lipmann wandered early in his career from laboratory to laboratory as a researcher. His wife remembers that he “had no position, no prospects, and it did not seem to trouble him.” This lack of obsessive focus is, perhaps, related to his famed ability to see the wider picture, a trait which eventually led to pivotal discoveries about how living organisms function.
Research on liver treatment of the anemias (with George Minot)
The cure for pernicious anemia, George Minot suspected, was – simply – a diet of liver. He enlisted Murphy, then a resident at Boston’s Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, to conduct a survey of anemia patients. Murphy was hard-pressed at first to persuade his subjects to eat the potential remedy. The seemingly miraculous recovery of those who did, however, convinced the more squeamish. Soon, a palatable extract was developed, based on the team’s work.
Research on liver treatment of the anemias (with William P. Murphy)
The scion of a Boston Brahmin family, the at-first unambitious Minot eventually became a pioneer in the field of hematology, the study of blood. While researching the deadly blood disease known as pernicious anemia, Minot himself was stricken by diabetes. It was the discovery of insulin in 1921 that allowed him to continue his research, which ultimately led to his own discovery of the cure for pernicious anemia.