"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" ~ Mary Oliver

Tag: Nobel prize

christian de duve . . .

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.

prizes . . .

Okay, so the MacArthur Fellows were named yesterday.

These are the so-called “genius” awards consisting of about half of a million dollars to each of the people whose exceptional endeavors are singled out by the MacArthur Foundation. One of them this year is a stringed instrument bow maker in Boston. Another is an economist who surveyed about a million sources of data to come up with conclusions about how we learn. Chris Thile, a mandolin player whose recordings and Youtube clips attest to an amazing ability ignored phone calls from MacArthur, thinking they were political robocalls.

When my kids were growing up in Lexington, we knew a family with the same surname as ours who lived up the hill from us. Tragically, the mother died from a blood clot after routine knee surgery. The father, who taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) raised the three girls by himself and my daughters were friendly with them as classmates in school. Years later, I happened to hear that one of them had gone on to MIT herself and formed a group of her peers to invent and develop very simple devices that would help people in third world countries. Her invention was a handheld water purifier that worked manually by cranking it. Amy Smith was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2004.

I don’t know about you, but I look forward to hearing about these awards every year. It comes after the Nobel prizes are announced earlier in the Fall. And they come after the Pulitzer and Booker Prizes, I think. In a way, it’s great to hear about these acknowledgements of human creativity and exceptional talent.

Sometimes I wonder, though, how other superhuman efforts are acknowledged in our culture. Like the parents who live across the street from me whose eldest son has cystic fibrosis, living in a wheelchair, picked up everyday by the public school bus. Or parents who have kids who are autistic or disabled in other ways that entails a lifetime of care and concerns about their welfare when they reach adulthood. One of my mentors when I worked at Genetics Institute had a son like that. The loving care he and his wife provided for their child extended beyond themselves to efforts putting through legislative initiatives in the public sector to help others with the same plight.

When I think about acknowledging meaning in one’s life, it comes in many different forms on so many different levels. The MacArthur celebrants are on one extreme of the spectrum. On a daily basis, there must be zillions more along the way.