Hamilton Smith's Second Chance

Scientist's journey: He won the Nobel, but lost his way. Could he put his family together? And could he crack one of life's great puzzles?

April 11, 1999|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff

From the moment he learned he had won the Nobel Prize, Hamilton Smith dreaded what was to come.

On that October morning 20 years ago, Smith numbly performed the rituals of celebration -- sipping champagne, posing for photographers, nodding at colleagues and strangers. He threaded through knots of well-wishers at Johns Hopkins medical school. He sweated through a news conference, then tried to teach a class. Finally, he fled to his office, unable to endure the uproar.

Smith wondered if there had been some terrible mistake. His award-winning discovery had come after a brief experiment, conducted almost on impulse. How, he thought, could anyone honor him for that?

"Are you kidding?" he gasped when a reporter told him about the prize. "I just didn't imagine it would be taken in that light."

Even those who knew him best couldn't quite believe it. Hearing the news on her car radio in Florida, Smith's mother, puzzled, turned to his father. "I didn't know there was another Hamilton Smith at Hopkins," she said.

Before that bewildering day, Smith drew little notice. He appeared to be just another researcher, a lab rat putting in seven-day weeks under fluorescent lights. Six-foot-five, with sloppy posture and a goofy laugh, he loped along Hopkins' echoing hallways. His sweaters were moth-eaten, his shirts transparent at the elbows. As he talked, he squinted through thick glasses, as if he had just emerged from a cavern.

He lacked the confidence to be much of a teacher, the drive to lead a department. But alone in his lab, "Ham" Smith was one of the master craftsmen of science. He had discovered the first tools for dissecting DNA, the stuff from which all life springs. His work had helped introduce the modern era of biology, giving humans a glimpse of their genetic destiny and promising mankind, one day, the means to alter its fate.

Those who knew Smith considered him a deep thinker, a scientist's scientist. Smith, though, regarded himself as just a "kitchen chemist." Acclaim always belonged to others, he felt. Even as a child, he thought his brother had more promise. It was Norman who seemed destined to do great things, until his mind fractured. Smith only expected to putter in the shadows.

Winning the Nobel might have been the most triumphant moment of Hamilton Smith's life, the climax of a productive career. Instead, it wrenched him out of his comfortable obscurity and overwhelmed him with a sense of obligation.

His wife would never forget his anguished reaction. "Gee, I got this thing," he told her. "I have to earn it now."

But for years after the prize, nothing went as Smith had hoped. His career stalled and his research was ignored. He watched, almost as a bystander, as his family fell apart. Retreating to his lab, he became almost invisible to the wider world. A Hopkins spokes-man tried recently to remember the school's only two Nobel winners. "Dan Nathans," he said, then paused. "And what's-his-name."

Smith felt that he had somehow failed, but once again underestimated himself. He didn't realize how far his skills could still take him, how big a contribution he could still make. Genetics had the potential to transform medicine and vanquish disease. Like other biologists, Smith dreamed of being able to explain life at its most fundamental level.

Despite his disappointments, he never surrendered to despair. He endured. When the opportunity finally came, he would seize his second chance.

Young scientists

Ham Smith's scientific career began in his basement, amid glittering beakers and test tubes and flickering Bunsen burners. The shelves were crammed with how-to books, handcrafted radios, tele-graphs and home-brewed explosives. A spark generator, shaped like a rabbit-ear antenna, threw a blinding arc of electricity.

In the early 1940s, Ham, then 10, and Norman, 11, would work wordlessly, side by side for hours. Both were shy, though Norman was more so. Both were gifted, though Ham considered Norman smarter. Both were accomplished musicians, with Norman playing the violin and Ham the piano. Right through college, they would call each other by the same nickname, "Butch."

"We grew up like twins, almost," Ham recalls.

Their father, Bunnie O. Smith, was a pipe-smoking professor of education and author. A mild-mannered man, he was descended from Baptist preachers and country doctors in southern Georgia and the Florida Panhandle.

The boys' mother, Tommie, was a high school history teacher, talented in math, who had grown up on a farm in Arkansas. Even among family members, she could be tense and withdrawn, with little tolerance for the chaos that children bring.

The Smith boys showed a precocious interest in science. Before they started school, they were using their first chemistry set to smoke roaches out of the baseboards. Their father gave them math problems and they became infatuated with numbers. They would scribble lines of zeros for hours, trying to make them perfect.

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