Monday, October 5, 2009

Three Americans Win Nobel Prize for Medicine--And Remind Us That Medicine Is Calculated Violence Against Disease

From the AP story on the three new laureates:

STOCKHOLM — Americans Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak won the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine today for discovering a key mechanism in the genetic operations of cells, an insight that has inspired new lines of research into cancer.

The trio solved the mystery of how chromosomes, the rod-like structures that carry DNA, protect themselves from degrading when cells divide.

Their work is plenty impressive, helping us to better understand cancer, but I will admit that what most caught my eye was the photograph accompanying the AP story, as it appeared in the LA Times. That's Blackburn and Greider above, flanking a bust of Paul Ehrlich, the great German medical researcher, who was awarded his own Nobel Prize for Medicine back in 1908.

Ehrlich--not to be confused with Paul R. Ehrlich, the neo-Malthusian scientist, author of disastrously wrongheaded 1968 book, The Population Bomb, and many similar works in the decades since--is perhaps best known through a 1940 Hollywood movie made about his life, starring Edward G. Robinson, "Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet."

As that title suggests, Ehrlich was a scientist who had a perfectly forthright approach to disease. You identify the disease--diptheria, syphilis--and then you seek to shoot it with a "magic bullet." That is, a medicine that destroys the disease, but does not destroy the surrounding tissue.

At their best, metaphors provide not only guides for understanding but also serve as tools for action. So the "magic bullet" metaphor is important because it reminds us that medicine is a war against disease.

It's a war we can win, but we have to strategize, mobilize, industrialize and tangibilize that great effort. It is not a task for the fainthearted.


  1. I think it is great that you highlighted the achievements of these heroes. When I was a kid you would occasionally see these kinds of people valorized in the press but these days it seems extremely rare and eve more rare that you ever hear about one of them more than once ever.

    One of the places this hurts the most is among the young. Rather than having heroes portrayed in the press in the areas of business, science, and engineering, we instead present them with endless glorification of rappers, sports stars, politicians, and other trivial people doing trivial things as the epitome of achievement.

    Thanks for doing your part, but we need to have a thousand more people doing the same thing or our country will be toast in another generation or two.

  2. Thanks, James, for sharing, but Gov. Huckabee knows of D.N.s (Doctors of Naturopathy) who can help people get well a lot faster! Some M.D.s have given people a death sentence of 6 months to live. Yet they go to a D.N. who tests their blood, hair and urine, and gives them natural vitamins, and they have cancer free test results in 6 weeks! Pretty impressive results those D.N.'s get, eh?