Tumult and triumph follow magical call that tells winners of Nobel Prize

October 17, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

It is the true October surprise, a sudden burst of transcendent happiness that fills its target with the same kind of rush as a big hit on the lottery.

But the careers and lives of Nobel Prize laureates, unlike those of some lottery winners, usually don't go south in the days and years that follow the big event.

Mostly, though not always, things get better.

Maybe that has to do with the added consideration that the prize was probably deserved. It did not come through pure luck of the sort that falls without discriminating upon the heads of people good and bad, smart and stupid, the deserving and otherwise.

In Dr. James Muller's view, the Nobel Prize is usually a continuation, a marker, in its winner's life, not an agent of jarring change that the lottery fortune is in the lives of most people who win it -- often people unprepared to deal with change of any sort.

Which is not to say a Nobel doesn't come as a big surprise. It would be hard to imagine a sweeter wake-up call than the one from Sweden.

"It was exhilarating," Dr. Muller recalled of that October morning back in 1985 when he got his good news. And, in his case, more surprising than usual.

Dr. Muller, a cardiologist at the Deaconess Hospital in Boston, is the man who discovered that heart attacks occur more frequently in the morning than in the evening. But that's not why he got the call from Stockholm.

He got that for having been one of the founders of an organization called International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1985.

At the time, Dr. Muller was not even involved with it.

"I had left the organization in 1984," he said. "I was a full-time academic cardiologist at Harvard. I had a family, and I was spending 40 to 50 hours a week trying to build this organization.

"I left because I found it was not possible to live that way. I almost lost my job at Harvard. It put enormous strain on my family, so I decided to retire."

That year's $225,000 prize money went to the organization, which has since turned its energies to preventing nuclear proliferation. Dr. Muller returned to his research, and for the past eight years, he has been trying to find out just why it is that people have heart attacks more frequently in the morning than in the evening.

As it is with lottery winners, Nobel laureates find themselves suddenly in proximity to large amounts of money. That doesn't mean they all get rich overnight, or over-excited by it.

The amounts that accompany the prizes have risen, though not steadily, over the years. The 1993 awards given out this month were worth $825,000 each. Last year's were $1.2 million.

Back in 1972, when the Johns Hopkins biochemist Christian Anfinsen (then at the National Institutes of Health) won the Nobel for his work with amino acids, the check was for a paltry $100,000.

"I got about half of it," he recalled. "And a lot was taken up by taking my wife and kids over to Stockholm for the ceremony, what with the air fares and hotel bills."

He did have enough left over, however, "to buy a little cottage down in Annapolis."

L "But," he added, "the prize directed the future of my work."

Currently, that is to attempt to isolate a unique bacterium found in the Mediterranean capable of living at very high temperatures. If things go well, this creature may eventually be able to consume and dispose of the vast stocks of dangerous mustard gas at places such as Aberdeen Proving Grounds, the old Edgewood Arsenal, and the deadly stockpiles in Iraq and the former Soviet Union.

Which might put Dr. Anfinsen in line for another Nobel Prize. But for which? Biology or Peace?

By the time Dr. Norman F. Ramsey won the Nobel for Physics in 1989, the payoff had grown considerably. He was honored for his research, which led to the development of the atomic clock. His cash award was $430,000. A similar amount went to a German physicist who also got a physics medal for that year.

Dr. Ramsey took half of the amount, and his research team got the other half. He, like Dr. Anfinsen, also wanted some company to share the ceremonials in Sweden.

"I invited some of my principal collaborators, and all of my family. I invited all of my graduate students and every person who I collaborated with," he recalled. In all, he took 21 people to Stockholm.

"It put a dent in the prize money." Dr. Ramsey is 78, and the immediate effect of the prize on his life four years ago was to keep him from the retirement he had been easing into at the time. Now he works all the time, doing what comes naturally to a scientific superstar.

But he also conceded that the effect of the Nobel experience is not universally positive.

"I've seen it happen enough. Some have good responses to the Nobel, some bad. Some continue to do good work; some don't. It's like people I've known who make a big discovery at an early age and feel they shouldn't work on anything other than another big discovery."

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