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For Wald, Science Sets the Stage

By Michael Kendall

George Wald is not a Harvard institution. He is an aberration. Despite the 43 years he has spent here Wald, Higgins Professor of Biology, does not have the mannerisms of an Oxford don, nor does he long for the days when practically all Harvard students were white, male and wealthy. One of Wald's friends says the decade that Wald longs for most is the 1960s, when science concentrators and students in general were more concerned with social issues than with their medical school applications. A biologist, teacher and social activist, Wald has distinguished himself by setting trends in each of these areas. Although he is retiring from Harvard this June, Wald will continue his scientific work and political activism.

Coming to Harvard during the depression years of the '30s, Wald started as an instructor and tutor in Biochemistry, receiving tenure in 1948. He was named to the Higgins chair in 1968. Wald had isolated Vitamin A in the human retina before he came to Harvard and eventually won the Nobel Prize in Physiology for his vision research. Today, Wald says it is his dedication to and understanding of science, rather than belief in any specific political philosophy, that has compelled him to become a social activist. He admired Salvadore Allende's Marxist government but says, "I don't know what communism or socialism mean anymore. I've been a registered Democrat without satisfaction," adding, "My route is science."

Wald did not "prepare" for Harvard but came to the University after distinguishing himself as a researcher. He earned his B.S. degree at New York University in 1927 and received a Ph.D. at Columbia five years later. At the age of 27, on a fellowship in Europe the next year, Wald succeeded in isolating Vitamin A, which had just been discovered. He helped to complete the identification of the vitamin several months later.

Wald's dedication to science goes from the slightly mundane--his insistence on doing all lab work himself, forgoing the use of technicians and assistants--to what Everett I. Mendelsohn, professor of the History of Science, says is some of the most inventive scientific thinking--Wald's use of biochemistry to redirect theories on the origin of the universe. At all levels of understanding, science, for Wald, is a universal language. "I am deeply glad to be a scientist because I think that human beings have always and everywhere asked the same questions," he says.

By relating specific issues and ideas to universal concepts, Wald intellectually transcends the boundary between science and politics. He juxtaposes democracy with natural selection and judges scientific work on its moral and political implications. Noting the dearth of scientist-activists, he says without apology, "The thing that gets me into those political issues is science. You cannot study nature as it goes down the drain."

Wald's first public political act was a speech he delivered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in March, 1969. Delivering such lines as "The Vietnam War is the most shameful episode in the whole of American history," Wald became an early and prominent academic critic of the Asian war. Vietnam was just one part of this speech, however, for Wald says it was only a "detail in a much bigger situation"--the militarization of the United States, accompanied by the increased dominance of big business. Consequently he lists as his political priorities: nuclear disarmament and the control of nuclear power, industrial disease and recombinant DNA research.

The speech changed his life "more than the Nobel prize," Wald says, turning him into a magnet for social activists interested in gaining exposure through the use of public figures. Wald says he avoids most organizations, preferring to act individually, but he is deeply involved with the American Friends Service Committee and Amnesty International in defending Soviet dissidents and opposing totalitarian regimes in South Korea and Chile. Wald also backed the presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972.

Harvard's nebulous tenure policy favors accomplished researchers, and its reputation often helps supply a national audience for its faculty members, but many published scholars fail in the classroom. Students, colleagues and critics agree that Wald, more than anything else, is a dedicated teacher who has the rare ability to present complex ideas on a sophisticated but understandable level. As with his science, Wald's teaching is not separated from his politics. In Natural Sciences 5. "The Nature of Living Things" (yes, he enjoys teaching undergraduates), Wald once burned a dollar bill during lecture and asked the class to explain his action on the final exam. During another lecture, Wald talked about a student in the course who had spent a considerable part of his spring reading period in a New Hampshire jail for protesting against nuclear power plant construction in Seabrook, N.H. Wald then told the class to help him out on the final exam.

At times Wald's preoccupation with the universal and his disinterest in the earthly annoys those with whom he works. A sectionman from one of his courses says Wald is not a harsh grader but is often unaware of Harvard's norms, once recommending a C median for an hourly--something the sectionman says "just isn't done here."

Politics has become Wald's consuming interest, and while it has not reduced his effectiveness as a teacher, he says the ensuing commitments and pressures have "disrupted the continuity" of his life, making it more difficult to conduct research. It would be unfair to fault Wald for ignoring research in favor of politics, however, because as Mendelsohn notes, most biologists tend to produce their major work early in their career. Following Wald's perception of a scientist's role, his activism is not a substitute for research but its logical extension.

Wald's political involvement has brought him numerous critics, especially within the Harvard community. After the University accepted a $1 million grant from South Korean businessmen allegedly connected with the Park regime, Wald publicly urged Harvard to return the money.

A faculty oversight committee approved recombinant DNA research--gene splicing--at Harvard, but Wald, placing what he saw to be the community interest over scientific advancement, brought the issue before the Cambridge City Council. Wald's vociferous protests before the council resulted in a temporary city-ordered ban on the research. One Harvard proponent of DNA research says, "Some faculty members feel that it was incessantly self-righteous of him to invoke Mayor Vellucci's help when he couldn't convince committee of his peers to stop the p-3 facility." (The p-3 facility is the laboratory, now under construction for the DNA research.) He also criticized Wald for being too much of a showman, often gauging his actions for the benefit of his audience.

Wald is married to Ruth Hubbard '45, professor of Biology, and she has joined him in his radical causes. She has taught Biology 106 "Biology of Social Issues," and testified against DNA research at a Senate hearing this spring. Wald sent his own written testimony to the same set of hearings.

Following commencement, Wald will leave for Rome and Tokyo to participate in conferences on nuclear armaments and nuclear power. He plans to return to his home in Woods Hole, Mass., to write on scientific topics and maintain his political activities. Even though he never fit the institutional mold and eschewed gray flannels for a turtleneck sweater and medallion, Wald has left an indelible mark upon Harvard. He is at times "a pain in the neck to the administration," as one admirer says, but he is still universally respected in spite or because of his politics.

Critics claim Wald is too image conscious, exploiting research and issues for his personal exposure. But his contributions to science and society have come about as a result of the public's perception of him--regardless of its accuracy. As Mendelson says, Wald, with his creative intellect and moral convictions, has "pierced the mystique of science" and "set a new standard for scholars."

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