No Rest for a Nobelist–David Baltimore


David Baltimore (1938–)
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1975 (with Renato Dulbecco and Howard Martin Temin) “for their discoveries concerning the interaction between tumour viruses and the genetic material of the cell”

Baltimore, the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology, and President Emeritus of Caltech, was interviewed recently about his life and work after the prize.

“When you win the Nobel Prize, you become much more visible as a member of the scientific community. Visible to the press, visible to your colleagues, visible to students. Today, and ever since, when I meet a student, I know that they’re looking at me and saying, ‘That’s a Nobel Prize winner.’ And it actually makes normal communication more difficult because they think I come from some other planet.

“I had to accept the medal of speaking for the scientific community and have spent now basically almost all of my career as a sort of visible member of the scientific community, conscious of a responsibility and an opportunity.

“I’ve been involved in some of the biggest changes in the nature of biology, the way we do it, and the controversies that have been associated with that. Probably the biggest one was the recombinant DNA controversy in 1975, partly as a result of my work. We suddenly realized that there was a new capability, the capability to cut and paste DNA and therefore to move genes from one organism to another, to modify genes, to capture genes, to use them in biotechnology, and that was a monumental new way of looking at biological experimentation and the capabilities of our profession. But it also raised the issue of whether we were going to create some kind of monster, some kind of problem, disease-causing organisms. And so the world got pretty worried about that.

“I was part of the organization that put together the Asilomar Conference, a conference that looked at this question of danger coming from the new capabilities and put in place a procedure whereby we could slowly extend the capabilities to new organisms and new ways of doing science with safe checks along the way so that this was done carefully over a decade. And I think that gave the general public a sense that we were being responsible as scientists.

“Inevitably the biggest impact that people will have seen from my career is the discovery of the reverse transcriptase because that won the Nobel Prize and stood out. I think that in all of the areas where I’ve worked, there are personal satisfactions which are as great as that— the success of my students.”

Header image credit: Caltech