christian de duve . . .

by mulberryshoots

May-July 2007 354_2
As I was having my breakfast this morning, I started reading the front section of the New York Times from the back page first. Glancing down the editorials, I turned the page and saw a long obituary on the left hand page for Dr. Christian de Duve at the age of 95 in Brussels. He died by euthanasia, it seems, a way to die that is legal in Belgium. He had spent the last month writing letters to people letting them know about his decision to depart this life. Listed also were the names of two sons, two daughters, grandchildren and two great grandsons. Curiously, nowhere was it mentioned the name of his wife, whose name was Anne, as I recall.

You see, when I graduated from college, I married someone who decided to go to law school at Columbia University because his father, a partner in his own law firm in Ohio, wanted him to follow in his footsteps. Reluctantly, D. studied law although he circumvented practicing law by going on to study for a Masters in Urban Planning. His parents, (my in-laws) gave him money for his law school education, but volunteered none to us for our living expenses at the graduate students’ apartment building on Riverside Drive at the time.

Always resourceful, there was a typing pool of graduate student wives who earned monthly expenses by taking in dissertations (9 carbon copies) from the never-ending stream of candidates needing their work to be completed before graduating and getting a job. I remember using a heavy duty IBM electric typewriter and earning $300 a month (50 cents a page, 5 cents a carbon) for over three years while I also had our first and second daughters. In those days, copiers were nonexistent and I still can remember rolling the platen down carefully to make an erasure for each onion skin copy and calculating how much room footnotes would require at the bottom of the page. Ah, those were the days!

In any case, I did the typing after I became pregnant and had to quit my first job as a bilingual administrative assistant to, yep, Dr. Christian de Duve at the Rockefeller Institute. In those days, Dr. de Duve continued his laboratory at Louvain, Belgium as well as the lab at Rockefeller. Two requirements were necessary for me to get the job: correspondence in French and English and making Medaglia d’Oro espresso coffee to his liking. There were Belgian lab assistants, post Docs from Chile and Belgium and grant budgets to keep track of. I took the bus to work from the Upper West Side to mid-East side where the Rockefeller campus sheltered more Nobel Prize winners than practically anywhere else.

Dr. de Duve himself shared the Nobel Prize a few years after I left. And I remember going downstairs to lunch riding in an elevator with (future) Nobelists, Dr. George Palade, Dr. Rene Dubus and of course, Dr. de Duve.

He was kind and aloof. His beautiful wife, Anne, well dressed and also aloof, visited a few times a year. I’m not sure why she was not mentioned in his obituary, but I read in another article that de Duve’s “beloved wife died in 2008.”

In any case, Christian de Duve had a very long and productive life, it seems. I remembered a decade or so ago running into something that he had written online and had sent him a message. He remembered me and wrote back a friendly but reserved greeting. Just like him.