Walter Gilbert (1932 - )
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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