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Micro-Organisms and the Nobel Prize

Lawrence Bush
August 12, 2017

Salvador Lurie, a Nobel Prize-winning Italian microbiologist who was shunned by Mussolini and forced to flee to the U.S. by Hitler, was born in Turin on this date in 1912. Lurie and his co-winners of the 1969 Nobel, Max Delbrück and Alfred Hershey, studied the genetic structures of viruses and bacteria. The 1943 Luria-Delbrück experiment showed that genetic mutations occur in bacteria in the absence of natural selection pressures, rather than in response to natural selection, which extended Darwin’s theory of natural selection and random mutations (as opposed to the Lamarckian theory of acquired characteristics) to microorganisms as well as to more complex forms of life. It also showed that random mutations among bacteria can bestow viral resistance without the virus being present -- an idea that explains how bacteria develop antibiotic resistance. Lurie was a politically active socialist who protested nuclear weapons testing and the Vietnam War, and supported labor unions on the campuses where he taught. His politics led to his briefly being blacklisted from grants from the National Institutes of Health the year of his Nobel Prize. Named to the National Academy of Sciences in 1960, he won the 1974 National Book Award in Science for Life: the Unfinished Experiment, and received the National Medal of Science in 1991.

“Luria dated his serious concern for politics to his move to France in 1938. There, the intensity of everyday political discussions, and the availability of newspapers from all the shades of the political spectrum, made politics come alive for him. ‘The world of refugee politics in Paris was a world of ideological parties, not of meaningful political action,’ he said, but the French political scene in the late 1930s provided ample sources of political education. By the time he left Paris in 1940 he was ‘a deeply political individual, a socialist - -unattached, without party loyalties or allegiances, but existentially committed to a socialist orientation.’ From that time, his political commitment was personal and emotional,’ ”kept alive and reinforced mainly by the spectacle of injustice’ wherever it occurred.” --U.S. National Library of Medicine

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.