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Walter Gilbert (1932 - )

Susan Wiegand

While the world at large admires the work of excellent scientists, those whom the scientists themselves revere is something else entirely. Walter Gilbert is among that select group.

Born in 1932 in Boston, Gilbert has rarely strayed from that intellectual and scientific nest. The first time was at the age of seven when his father, an economist who had taught at Harvard for the first years of the boy's life, took a job with a Washington D.C. brain trust for the duration of World War II. Already showing the makings of a scientist, Gilbert ground mirrors for his own telescopes and joined his first science society, a group of adult amateur geologists. It was also while living in suburban Virginia that the twelve-year-old executed his first dramatically failed chemical experiment, causing an explosion, which resulted in a slashed wrist from flying glass and a trip to the hospital. His mother, a child psychologist, remembers that as they approached the hospital, Walter offered his first commentary on the event: "I know what I did wrong," he brightened, the physical pain subdued by stubborn curiosity.

School frequently bored Gilbert, and he did not regularly visit the Quaker institution where his parents had installed him. But unflagging enthusiasm for scientific inquiry - even in the face of explosions and bloodshed - remained with Gilbert and followed him to Harvard University in 1950. There he studied chemistry and physics in the company of great scientists, who all seemed destined for some Nobel appreciation. After graduating, Gilbert went to Cambridge University, England, where he pursued his Ph.D. in physics. It was there that he made the acquaintance of another young American, James Watson, who was already notorious for his work with DNA. By 1957, Gilbert was back at Harvard and married to Celia Stone, a poet whom he had first met while in high school in Virginia.

In 1960, the professor of physics began spending his free time in the biology laboratories, where he collaborated with talented scientists from various disciplines in the search for the "messenger" that relayed information from DNA to the areas in the cell where proteins are manufactured. In 1961, Gilbert published his first paper on messenger RNA in Nature Magazine, and gained immediate respect for his work in experimental biology. In 1964, he published the last of his papers in theoretical physics and officially became a tenured biophysicist at Harvard.

Gilbert threw himself at the biggest mystery of the moment in molecular biology: why different cells produce different proteins, even though they all have exactly the same information in their DNA. This line of questioning led to his laboratory's discovery of the lac repressor in Escherichia coli, which not only made his reputation internationally, but also made his laboratory a Mecca for some of the brightest graduate students on the planet. Students who worked in Gilbert's lab in the seventies and early eighties remember fondly an exciting, egalitarian atmosphere of discovery, where there was humor and camaraderie and an urgency to work brilliantly and add the next piece to the puzzle. Gilbert's own personality was infectious. For his work, Gilbert shared the 1980 Nobel Prize for Chemistry with Frederick Sanger and Paul Berg.

International fame kept Gilbert on the road much of the time, speaking at conferences and visiting other laboratories. In 1982, he left Harvard to run Biogen, the Swiss-based biotechnology company he had helped found. The company faltered, and Gilbert stepped down from his position as CEO and chairman in 1984. He returned to Harvard to do research; there he remains one of the most respected scientists of this century, both for his work and for his character, which has informed the work of so many others.

Go to: The Walter Gilbert Web Site at Harvard University

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