Ex-Baltimorean shares Nobel Prize in medicine

October 11, 1994|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff Writer

He calls himself a "Baltimoron."

Yesterday, he won a Nobel Prize.

Dr. Martin Rodbell, a 68-year-old graduate of City College and the Johns Hopkins University, shared the 1994 Nobel Prize in medicine with Dr. Alfred G. Gilman, 53, of the University of Texas. Working separately, the two scientists discovered and studied chemical signals called "G-proteins" that dictate the way living cells grow, change, communicate and respond to each other.

Dr. Rodbell spent his career as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. But he said that his scientific exploits really began when he was 8 years old, in the basement of a friend's West Baltimore home, where he concocted stink bombs and explosives out of a chemistry set.

And he said his later life was shaped by those early years, growing up in an apartment above his father's Arunah Avenue grocery store, attending Alexander Hamilton Elementary School and eating at a cousin's crab house.

"All of my early associations are with the store and the neighborhood," said Dr. Rodbell. "That helped to make me the kind of person I am."

Colleagues call him a warm, enthusiastic and unassuming scientist whose ground-breaking discovery has led to a deeper understanding of how hormones work, how some cells turn cancerous and how cholera and diphtheria attack the body.

"He's not plodding or methodical, I assure you," said Dr. Dean Londos, who worked with Dr. Rodbell for 14 years at NIH. "He's more likely to be jumping around, getting excited, and when he gets an idea, he'll turn the laboratory upside down to test it."

"He's the sort of person who you hope will always be recognized for something great like this," said Dr. Donald L. Gill, a professor of biochemistry with the University of Maryland's medical school, who worked with Dr. Rodbell from 1979 to 1982.

Yesterday at 6 a.m., Dr. Rodbell recalled, there was "a ringing in ++ my head" that turned out to be the telephone. The scientist lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., but a man with a Swedish accent had tracked him down to his daughter's home in Bethesda, where he is visiting.

The man said Dr. Rodbell had won a Nobel. Did he accept it?

The scientist, still groggy, didn't quite understand. "Should I or shouldn't I?" he asked.

"I think you should," the man said.

French literature major

At City College during the early years of World War II, Dr. Rodbell took courses in its "accelerated" academic program and served on the student advisory council. He graduated in 1943.

As an undergraduate at Hopkins, he took science courses but majored in French literature. But the war interrupted his studies. He was drafted and served 2 1/2 years in the Navy in the South Pacific, Korea and China.

Returning to Hopkins after the war, he received his bachelor's degree -- in French literature -- in 1949.

He met his future wife, Barbara C. Ledermann, who had arrived in the United States as a refugee from Amsterdam in 1947, when she starred in an amateur theatrical production at Homewood. In Amsterdam she had been a friend of Anne Frank, whose diary stands as a testament to the victims of the Holocaust. Ms. Ledermann's family was killed at Auschwitz.

They were married in 1949, the same day they flew to Seattle, where Dr. Rodbell had been admitted to graduate school. He earned his doctorate in biology from the University of Washington in 1954.

After a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Illinois, Dr. Rodbell joined the National Institutes of Health in 1956. First, he worked with the National Heart Institute, then the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases -- where his Nobel Prize-winning research occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

New field of research

Dr. Gill, who worked with Dr. Rodbell at NIH from 1979 to 1982, said the Nobel laureate's work launched a whole new field of biomedical research.

"G-proteins control almost every cellular function involved in signaling, in how cells grow, in how cells differentiate, in how cells respond to hormones," Dr. Gill said.

The research that began in Dr. Rodbell's and Dr. Gilman's labs, he said, has spawned work by thousands of other investigators around the world.

"That whole field just exploded," Dr. Gill said.

At a news conference in Texas, Dr. Gilman said that perhaps 50 years from now, every molecule in the human body will be known along with the structure of the molecule.

TC Drug design then would be reduced to using a computer to study how various chemicals would interact theoretically with all the known proteins, he said.

"You'll be able to design a drug that works only on the molecule that you want and no other molecule in the human body. This is the future for rational drug design," he said.

The two scientists will split $930,000 in prize money. They and this year's other Nobel laureates, still to be announced, will be feted Dec. 10 in Stockholm, Sweden, and Oslo, Norway.

Dr. Rodbell now holds the title "scientist emeritus" at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a branch of the NIH at Research Triangle Park, N.C. But he still has ties to his hometown.

"He's probably one of the greatest proponents of Bertha's mussels," Dr. Gill said, referring to the seafood specialty of a Fells Point eatery. "He talks about the place incessantly."

Dr. Rodbell said that his 8-year-old granddaughter heard all the commotion yesterday, turned to him and said: "Gosh, you know today is show and tell in school. I'll be able to tell them something."

Dr. Rodbell laughed. Suddenly, he was no longer just a grandfather: He had achieved show-and-tell status.

"I realized the impact is going to be greater than I thought," he said.

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