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'De Duve, chemistry and medicine, that's the science of the future'


Decision to study chemistry
Christian de Duve Scientist
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By the time I had... the war... the war had broken out and I had finished my studies, I had decided that what I wanted most to do in life was to solve... elucidate the mechanism of action of insulin on the liver. That was what I was going to do. And I had come to the conclusion that I would never be able to solve this problem with the kind of simple methods that were used in the physiology lab. Just injecting glucose, measuring the blood sugar level, was never going to get me anywhere; what I needed was biochemistry. Biochemistry was very poor at the university... not... not poor, but there was no biochemistry in the kind of field I wanted to go into. The French-speaking Professor of Biochemistry was an organic chemist and in the Flemish part he was a physical chemist, but there was nobody interested in metabolism. In any case, I felt that before I specialised in biochemistry I had to learn chemistry, and so what I decided, in 1941, was that I would study chemistry. I should go back to school and study chemistry, but in the meantime I had to make a living. And that's how I went to see my professor and told him what I wanted to do, and he said, 'You can't do that; you'd better get a job as an assistant at the hospital.' There were two positions available: one in internal medicine and the other in the cancer institute. I first went to the Professor of Internal Medicine because I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about the... the Professor... Head of the Cancer Institute. So I had been a good student... not very good, because I'd spent too much time in the lab and too much time – I didn't mention that – playing cards. And then... when the Professor of Internal Medicine was going to give me the job, I told him that I should mention that I'm going to study chemistry at the same time. So he looked at me and said, 'Listen, I need an assistant; I don't need a chemical student. So goodbye.'

Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve (1917-2013) was best known for his work on understanding and categorising subcellular organelles. He won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1974 for his joint discovery of lysosomes, the subcellular organelles that digest macromolecules and deal with ingested bacteria.

Listeners: Peter Newmark

Peter Newmark has recently retired as Editorial Director of BioMed Central Ltd, the Open Access journal publisher. He obtained a D. Phil. from Oxford University and was originally a research biochemist at St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical School in London, but left research to become Biology Editor and then Deputy Editor of the journal Nature. He then became Managing Director of Current Biology Ltd, where he started a series of Current Opinion journals, and was founding Editor of the journal Current Biology. Subsequently he was Editorial Director for Elsevier Science London, before joining BioMed Central Ltd.

Tags: physiology lab, insulin, biochemistry, chemistry, job

Duration: 2 minutes, 54 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008