Gerald Edelman, Nobel Prize winner in 1972, dies

Dr. Gerald Maurice Edelman, winner of the Nobel

Dr. Gerald Maurice Edelman, winner of the Nobel Prize for medicine, speaks at a Rockefeller University press conference on Oct. 12, 1972. (Credit: AP / Ron Frehm, File)

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Gerald Edelman, a co-winner of the Nobel Prize in 1972 who later joined the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, and wrote books and numerous articles about the brain, the nervous system and consciousness that amazed and sometimes annoyed his scientific colleagues, has died. He was 84.

Edelman died May 17 at his home in La Jolla; he had Parkinson's disease, according to his family.

Along with British scientist Rodney Porter, Edelman won the 1972 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine for discoveries involving the chemical structure of antibodies, the immune system proteins that detect and destroy bacteria and viruses.

Their findings later proved key to the work of biotech companies looking to find ways to diagnose and cure cancer and other diseases.

Edelman received a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1954. He later received a doctorate from what is now the Rockefeller University and remained there to study antibodies.

By 1991, Edelman was director of the Neurosciences Institute, an independent center based at Rockefeller. When it was announced that year that the institute would move to Scripps, it was considered a major coup and a sign that the West Coast would soon rival more established scientific centers of the East Coast.

In his decades-long association with Scripps, Edelman was a neurobiology professor, department chairman and member of the Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology.

His attention turned to unraveling the mystery of consciousness.

Yet his books were often difficult to understand, even for fellow scientists. His apparent dismissive attitude toward other theories made him a controversial figure.

Oliver Sacks, the noted professor at New York University and author of best-selling books about the brain and consciousness, said Edelman's theories about the nervous system were as revolutionary as Charles Darwin's about evolution in the mid-19th century.

Edelman's work about "how one became an individual (was) unlike anything that existed before," Sacks said in a 2012 video. For a scientist, Sacks said, meeting Edelman was as exciting as it must have been to meet Darwin in 1854 when he was working on "On the Origin of Species." "He sees himself as the Darwin of the nervous system," Sacks said of Edelman.

Edelman's prose had a flair not often associated with scientific writings. Dembart picked out a particularly dashing paragraph in "The Remembered Present," in which Edelman explains: "Consciousness may be seen as the haughty and restless second cousin of morphology (brain structure). Memory is its mistress, perception its somewhat abused wife, logic its housekeeper, and language its poorly paid secretary." If Edelman was upset by the sometimes doubting reviews or the puzzlement of colleagues, he never let on. He delighted in dazzling interviewers with high-speed references to pop artist Andy Warhol and violin master Jascha Heifetz and jokes about Beethoven's cat.

In 2004 Edelman was criticized by some scientists when it was revealed that he had been paid $700,000 over a decade by the tobacco company Philip Morris to act as a consultant.

He is survived by his wife, Maxine, two sons and a daughter.

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