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Tuesday, December 8, 1998, 12:00 p.m. EDT
Nobel Prize-winner Martin Rodbell, 73, who discovered a key secret of the communications system that regulates the human body's cellular activities, died yesterday morning (Dec. 7) at University of North Carolina Hospitals in Chapel Hill, where he was being treated for cardiovascular problems.
Dr. Rodbell in 1970 discovered that signal transmission, or transduction, which is the way the body's cells get their directions, requires a small intracellular molecule called GTP. His finding has had many implications for human diseases, from cancer to cholera, and their cure.
For his pioneering work he shared the 1994 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology with Professor Alfred G. Gilman of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (http://www.utsouthwestern.edu/) , who identified the proteins to which GTP binds and called these the G proteins.
Despite heart surgery a decade ago, Dr. Rodbell had continued to work on the signal transmission from and to cells, completing 42 years at NIEHS and other components of National Institutes of Health (http://www.nih.gov) .
He had started at what was then the National Heart Institute, made his key discovery at the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases, and then left the Bethesda campus of NIH to continue to work on transduction as scientific director of NIEHS from 1985 to 1989 and thereafter as scientist emeritus.
NIEHS Director Kenneth Olden said, "Dr. Rodbell brought great distinction to NIH and NIEHS. We are proud of his tremendous scientific accomplishments and are honored to have known him."
Dr. Rodbell's successor as scientific director of NIEHS, Carl Barrett, Ph.D., said, "While Dr. Rodbell's scientific genius is justly celebrated, we also remember his generous training of young scientists and intellectual stimulation of his colleagues."
Although he was scheduled to be go into the University of North Carolina Hospitals for treatment the next day, Dr. Rodbell on Nov. 16 delivered the inaugural NIEHS Rodbell Lecture, a series named in his honor.
He grinned his wide grin as he unveiled a sculpture of his right hand holding a symbol of cell transduction, to be presented to future lecturers. "Now when I am no longer here," he joked, "my hand will still be here."
In his lecture, Rodbell recounted his career at NIH with pleasure and emotion. He especially remembered the 1960's as a time when comradery and intellectual intensity made the NIH campus an especially good place for young scientists.
He said that both close reasoning and bald chance brought along his discoveries, and that many colleagues played a role. At one point he commented, "Nature doesn't always do things the way we expect it to, and we need to have humility about that."
His lecture slides were punctuated with early snapshots, one showing him in the Navy during World War II, when he was a radioman with the Pacific fleet. "All day I listened to Morse code," he said. "If that isn't preparation for looking at cell signaling, I don't know what is."
One of his fondest memories of his NIH career was that of his relocation with his family on the first of several trips to Europe to do research. He and his wife and four children were sent overseas in style on an ocean liner while he was still a junior scientific staffer (GS-11). He said that would never happen today.
Dr. Rodbell was born in Baltimore, where he attended public school and graduated from an accelerated course at Baltimore City College, a highly selective public high school. His subsequent education at the Johns Hopkins University was interrupted by Navy service but he was graduated with a BA by Johns Hopkins in 1949 and received his Ph.D. from the University of Washington at Seattle in 1954. He received post-doctoral training at the University of Illinois in the department of chemistry before joining the laboratory of Christian Anfinsen, 1972 Nobel Prizewinner for Chemistry, at the National Heart Institute.
Dr. Rodbell and his wife, Barbara, had lived in Chapel Hill, N.C., since he came to NIEHS as scientific director in 1985. He is survived by his wife; a daughter, Suzanne Richardson of Cabin John, Md., sons Paul of Silver Spring, Md., Andrew of Bethesda, Md., and Philip of Ringham, Mass., and 7 grandchildren. Memorial services will include a ceremony to be scheduled at NIEHS. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Rodbell Fund of the Triangle Community Foundation (http://www.trianglecf.org) , P. O. Box 12834, Research Triangle Park, NC 27709.
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