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Lost In 2013: Three Nobel Scientists Who Saw Something In Us

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Lost In 2013: Three Nobel Scientists Who Saw Something In Us

Lost In 2013: Three Nobel Scientists Who Saw Something In Us

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Since you're sure to be hearing obituaries and tributes to big names like Lou Reed or James Gandolfini, before turning the page on 2013, we wanted to tell you about people you may not have heard of and maybe some unknown stories about those you already knew.

First, three visionary scientists passed away this year. Because of their work, researchers today developed a new vaccine to save infants from respiratory disease and are figuring out how to use your own immune system to attack cancer.

NPR's Rebecca Hersher has this appreciation.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: In the summer of 1940, a young medical student left his home in occupied France to join the fight against Germany. His name was Francois Jacob, and he wanted to be a surgeon, but first, he wanted to fight.


HERSHER: Jacob never became a surgeon. In August 1944, he was defending Normandy when a bomb blast nearly killed him. He described his injuries many years later.


FRANCOIS JACOB: (Foreign language spoken)

HERSHER: My entire right side was filled with grenade fragments, he said. It was a dreadful time.


JACOB: (Foreign language spoken)

HERSHER: His hands were no longer steady enough for surgery. So in 1950, he joined a small group of scientists in Paris. The laboratory was in an attic. It was cramped, and the equipment was old. But there in that attic, looking at bacteria, Jacob made one of the greatest discoveries in the history of biology. He figured out how genes work.

Carl Zimmer is a science writer.

CARL ZIMMER: This was one of the most important discoveries in the history of biology. All your cells in your body have the same DNA in them, and yet they're very different. So a neuron in your brain is using a certain set of genes in order to let you think. A cell in your stomach is using a different set of genes to let you eat. If you can't turn your genes on and off, you're dead.

HERSHER: Jacob figured all of that out. And for his discovery, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965. With it came fame and fortune.

Meanwhile, in England, another young scientist was also interested in how genes worked. Frederick Sanger was two years older than Francois Jacob. When war came to England, he didn't fight. He was a pacifist, a Quaker. So he stayed at Cambridge University and worked on his chemistry degree.

And Sanger was a smart guy. By 1958, he had his own Nobel Prize for coming up with a way to map out the building blocks of proteins. But he wasn't content, says Carl Zimmer.

ZIMMER: He said, OK, well, figured out that problem. Let's think about genes. So genes are made of their own building blocks, and the problem is they're a lot more complicated because genes can be thousands and thousands of building blocks long.

HERSHER: Sanger was notoriously solitary. He worked long hours, building a machine that would sequence DNA.

ZIMMER: He actually sequenced the first genome. He sequenced the genome of a virus. It was a colossal amount of work. This took him years and years and years.

HERSHER: But it paid off. In 1980, Sanger won a second Nobel Prize - only three other people have ever done that. Sanger's discoveries eventually led to the sequencing of the first human genome.

And at the same time in America, there was a young doctor named David Hubel. He wasn't interested in genes or proteins. He was interested in cells, brain cells. So he invented a tiny electrode, the width of a single hair, and he hooked it up so he could listen to the brain.


HERSHER: That's David Hubel's original recording. It sounds kind of like static-y gunfire, but it's actually the sound of nerve cells in the brain. He used his electrode to figure out how vision works.

ZIMMER: People thought of the brain as kind of a camera. And so light comes into your eye or smells come into your nose and your brain just passively receives it all and is just making a picture of the outside world.

HERSHER: Hubel turned that idea on its head. He showed the brain isn't passive at all. It changes and adapts as we experience things. And for that, Hubel won his own Nobel Prize in 1981.

David Hubel, Frederick Sanger and Fancois Jacob all died this year. Carl Zimmer says it's worth reflecting on their work.

ZIMMER: It's hard to imagine modern medicine without the contributions of these people.

HERSHER: Rebecca Hersher NPR News.

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