Basic Medical Research Award
First, I can say that I am thrilled to be here, not only by the enjoyment of this festive occasion but also by the opportunity to join the impressive group of scientists who have received Lasker awards in the past. When I was growing up, one of the adages to which we were exposed was "you are known by the company you keep." When one surveys the amazing list of Lasker Laureates, one must agree that, at least by this criterion, the five scientists who are being honored today seem to have heeded this admonition.
To have the opportunity, as well as the obligation, to sit down and reflect on how we came to do the research being recognized today is of immense value in planning future activities. As explained in more detail in my article entitled "From Chemical Warfare to Breast Cancer Management" in the October issue of Nature Medicine, of which you have received a copy, my path was rather indirect. Having majored in chemistry at Wittenberg College in Ohio, I had already begun graduate training in organic chemistry at the University of Chicago when World War II came along. Although I had a private pilot license and wanted to join the Air Force, they would not accept contact lenses, so I spent the war on a project in the Department of Chemistry, synthesizing new and more effective poison gases while finishing my graduate studies and flying for the Civil Air Patrol on the weekends. Many of these toxic agents were quite formidable and actually put me in the hospital on two occasions, so I was glad that we did not need to drop them on the baby in Göttingen who 40 years later was to become my wife. So Peggy can be here today to help us celebrate.
The poison gas studies stimulated my interest in biology and medicine. But when the war was over, I had a family and was a bit too old to begin four years of medical school. So I had to settle for a one-year Guggenheim Fellowship to learn steroid hormone chemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich. While in Switzerland, I had the opportunity to climb the Matterhorn, which, as a novice, was the most difficult physical challenge of my life. More important, I learned the concept of "alternative approach" from the fact that the Matterhorn was the last major peak in Europe to be climbed, simply because people had always tried it from the Italian side, which looks much friendlier than the sheer northeast face usually seen in photographs. An Englishman named Edward Whymper decided to test the "impossible" northeast face, found it relatively easy, and, in July 1865, he and his party were the first to reach the top. As explained in the Nature Medicine article, two of our most important contributions, discovery of steroid hormone receptors and preparation of the first antibodies to them, depended on approaches different from what other laboratories were using.
Finally, during the past few weeks we have had a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the Lasker Foundation and what they have done and continue to do in supporting and stimulating biomedical research. This is an inspiration to all of us, as well as a cause for strong optimism for the future.