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Developing my interest in gamma globulin at the Rockefeller Institute


An army anecdote
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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Well, I'll tell you one anecdote of the army... it has really no relevance to science proper but it does have to human judgment and interaction and, after all, that in the end is what the brain is responsible for, so we'll probably come to my interest in the brain. At that time it wasn't so explicit, but I had a commanding officer who must have gotten his medical degree from the back of a comic book because he never really did anything except when he went on ward rounds with us at the American Hospital. We had one whole floor at the 196 Station Hospital; he would say, no matter who it was and what age and what the disease was... let's say a kid with the flu, he'd look down and say, 'Gentlemen, you know this could be cancer', and the patient of course would go into a tremendous tail spin. And so we used to hide the patients from him.

One day I was delivering a baby and had just finished and I was writing up the case when the phone rang and a lady said, 'I'm Major General So-and-so's wife', and I said, 'Oh yes, I know your husband – Air Force isn't it?' And she said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'What seems to be the trouble?' She said... by the way, this was about 12:30, half hour after midnight... she says, 'Well, he has some pain', and I said, 'Where?' And she said, 'I'd rather not say.' And I said, 'Down there?' And she said, 'Yes.' And I said, 'Does he have any fever?' And she said, 'Well, I don't have a thermometer but he feels a little warm.' I said, 'Tell you what I'm going to do. I'll send a technician out with some stuff and I'll see him first thing in the morning in the clinic, I assure you.' She said, 'Hold the phone, I heard some screaming.' She came back; she said, 'The general says you're going to put on your uniform, get the Cadillac ambulance and drive out to St Cloud and see him yourself.' I said, 'Ma'am, I can't do that; I'm officer of the day.' And she started yelling, and I said just, 'I'll call you right back.' And I called up my commanding officer, the colonel, and I said, 'Colonel, we have a case here; Major General So-and-so has epididymitis.' And he said, 'What's that?' And I said, 'Never mind; just come.' And he said, 'You wake me up for this?' I said, 'It is a Major General', so he came. I gave him the red pill and the blue pill and he went out and then I delivered another baby. And when I was writing that one up three figures came down the hall. By this time it was about three in the morning and it was the general, white as a sheet, the wife looking nonplussed and my commanding officer with a huge smile on his face. He went out there, he peeled back the blanket, and he looked at the general's soft parts, and he said, 'You know, General, this could be cancer', and he leaped into his trousers and that was the end of that story. I assure you it was real, it was like MASH.

US biologist Gerald Edelman (1929-2014) successfully constructed a precise model of an antibody, a protein used by the body to neutralise harmful bacteria or viruses and it was this work that won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 jointly with Rodney R Porter. He then turned his attention to neuroscience, focusing on neural Darwinism, an influential theory of brain function.

Listeners: Ralph J. Greenspan

Dr. Greenspan has worked on the genetic and neurobiological basis of behavior in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) almost since the inception of the field, studying with one of its founders, Jeffery Hall, at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where he received his Ph.D. in biology in 1979. He subsequently taught and conducted research at Princeton University and New York University where he ran the W.M. Keck Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology, relocating to San Diego in 1997 to become a Senior Fellow in Experimental Neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute. Dr. Greenspan’s research accomplishments include studies of physiological and behavioral consequences of mutations in a neurotransmitter system affecting one of the brain's principal chemical signals, studies making highly localized genetic alterations in the nervous system to alter behavior, molecular identification of genes causing naturally occurring variation in behavior, and the demonstration that the fly has sleep-like and attention-like behavior similar to that of mammals. Dr. Greenspan has been awarded fellowships from the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation, the Searle Scholars Program, the McKnight Foundation, the Sloan Foundation and the Klingenstein Foundation. In addition to authoring research papers in journals such as "Science", "Nature", "Cell", "Neuron", and "Current Biology", he is also author of an article on the subject of genes and behavior for "Scientific American" and several books, including "Genetic Neurobiology" with Jeffrey Hall and William Harris, "Flexibility and Constraint in Behavioral Systems" with C.P. Kyriacou, and "Fly Pushing: The Theory and Practice of Drosophila Genetics", which has become a standard work in all fruit fly laboratories.

Tags: American Hospital

Duration: 2 minutes, 37 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008