Nobel Causes

Nobel Causes

A refugee from Nazi Europe and a Long Island pharmacologist who began his career during the Depression received good news from Stockholm last week — announcements that they had won Nobel Prizes.

Viennese-born Walter Kohn, professor emeritus of physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara, received the 1998 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. He shares the award and a $978,000 prize with John Pople of Northwestern University in Chicago.

And Hewlett resident Robert Furchgott received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.Furchgott, who is professor emeritus of pharmacology at the State University of New York Health Science Center at Brooklyn, shares the award with colleagues in Los Angeles and Houston.

Furchgott, who received the Nobel Prize for research on the effects of nitric oxide gas he conducted more than a decade ago, has not had a free moment since last week’s announcement. He says his phone hasn’t stopped ringing. “I’ve lost count,” he says of the interviews he has given, “I’ve been a little bit overwhelmed. I’m beginning to learn to say no.”

Furchgott, 82, discovered that nitric oxide gas, a common air pollutant formed when nitrogen burns, has several medical applications, including treatment of heart disease, cancer and impotence.

Louis Ignarro of the University of California at Los Angeles, a co-awardee with Furchgott, discovered the principle that led to the use of Viagra as an anti-impotency drug.

“I didn’t develop Viagra,” Furchgott says, adding, “I worked with similar compounds.”

Does he mind the inevitable questions about Viagra?

Yes, he says. “It’s terrible.”

A native Charleston, S.C., he received a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina in 1937. During the Depression, graduate assistantships were hard to obtain. “It was doubly hard for a Jewish boy to get anything.” Finally he received a teaching assistantship at Northwestern University, where he received his doctorate in biochemistry.

Furchgott has received several prestigious scientific awards. The Nobel, he says, “just happened. That’s not what I work for. I had some lucky breaks.”

He will go to Stockholm in December with his wife to receive his prize. “I know I will have to take part in certain [social] affairs,” he sighs. Then back to work. He goes to his office “every day.”

“I have certain projects under way,” Furchgott says, “that I want to continue.”

Kohn, 75, fled Austria with his sister in 1939 — their parents died in Auschwitz. He found refuge in England, emigrated to Canada, served in the Canadian Army at the end of World War II and eventually settled in the U.S.

He and Pople were honored by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for research in computer-based studies of chemicals’ molecular properties.

Kohn, the first director of UCSB’s Institute for Theoretical Physics, was a founder of the school’s Jewish studies department. He has served as a visiting scholar at three Israeli universities.

Tom Tugend of Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this story.

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