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40 Years Later, All Eyes on Nobel-Winning Discovery

Nobel-winning research on human eye revolutionized field of molecular biology

By Alexander B. Cohn and Alexa D West, Crimson Staff Writerss

Champagne bubbled in a Harvard laboratory 40 years ago, as scientists celebrated biology professor George Wald’s Nobel Prize in Medicine.

“It was a very exciting thing,” said biology professor Ruth Hubbard, Wald’s second wife and fellow researcher.

Four decades later Wald’s legacy is very much alive at Harvard—the discovery that earned him a champagne bash would lead to advances in gene therapy and an in-depth understanding of biological messaging systems.

Wald, who passed away in 1997 at age 90, won his Nobel for discovering how vitamin A works on the molecular level to allow people to see. “Now today, we have therapies to help people who are blind,” said Wald’s former colleague, biology professor John E. Dowling ’57.

By discovering the process by which Vitamin A bonds to form a structure when activated by light, Wald was the first to discover a biological mechanism that is critical to many other enzymatic processes in the body, such as olfactory responses and hormone regulation.

And not only did Wald revolutionize modern molecular biology, he also profoundly changed undergraduate science education in his 43 years as a professor at Harvard.

In other classrooms, biology was taught in two chunks: botany in the fall and zoology in the spring.

“Frankly, they were terribly boring. I skipped zoology, cut most of it in the spring,” Dowling said. “What biochemistry was saying was that at the molecular level, all organisms are almost the same.”

Wald, who would be named was named one of the 10 best teachers in the country by Time magazine in 1966, chose not to divide biology.

“He changed the way we taught,” Dowling said. “We went from teaching the diversity of life to the unity of it.”

Wald thrived on making all people curious about science and active participants of their own learning.

“He was disappointed when students stopped complaining around the 70s. People came into his class already thinking they were pre-med and had to just take notes and get an A,” said his son Elijah Wald. “He believed every educated person should understand Hamlet and the Second Law of Thermodynamics.”

As students became more focused on the career benefits and science became more commercialized, Wald decided it was time for him to retire.

“Grants became more and more about the application of research, asking how it could be used commercially,” Elijah Wald said.

But Wald wasn’t for that.

“He just wanted to try and understand how the world worked.”

Upon winning the Nobel, Wald used his fame as a platform to advance his stance against the Vietnam War.

In 1969, Wald delivered a speech at MIT entitled “A Generation in Search of a Future.” The speech was published in The Boston Globe and The New Yorker.

“Are we to have a chance to live? We don’t ask for prosperity, or security; only for a reasonable chance to live, to work out our destiny in peace and decency. Not to go down in history as the apocalyptic generation,” Wald said in the speech.

His son recounted that when asked what place Wald, as a scientist, had speaking out against the war he replied, “I am a biologist. My business is life.” According to Elijah Wald, his father felt it was his duty was to stop the war. His activism led to multiple arrests at protests, as well as making it onto Richard Nixon’s “enemy list.”

But his son remembers him best for his kindness toward even his lowliest test subjects.

Elijah Wald recounted how his father saw lobsters being killed for the purpose of experimentation, then insisted they be treated better.

“All of the lobsters went back to the sea healthy,” the young Wald said of his father’s marine research.

Dowling doesn’t remember it quite that way. “I remember having a few lobster dinners, actually. Also, every spring we used to have a frog leg feast, also from the specimens used in our research. It was really delicious.”

—Staff writer Alexander B. Cohn can be reached at abcohn@fas.harvard.edu.

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