Individuals who are ignorant of science cannot really function in our modern society and are often destined to be the pawns of politicians, and others who wish to control their lives.


Fall/Winter 1999

Dr. David Cushman ’61
biochemist who developed captopril, the first hypertension drug, and recipient of the Lasker Award in Clinical Medicine.

What is the most significant event or achievement in your profession or field of study in the 20th century?

The most significant event in my profession (biochemistry) in the 20th century would have to be the determination of the structure of DNA, the genetic code, and the mechanisms whereby each person's blueprint is translated to yield a functional organism. These discoveries have led to a detailed understanding of embryological development, cell division, brain function, and almost all physiological functions; genetic predisposition to diseases can be determined before birth. Determination of the sequence of the entire human genome promises specific cures for the most difficult of human diseases, including the various forms of cancer. Relatively simple determination of DNA sequences allows determination of the structure and function of many important protein components in cells, including those present in amounts too minute to isolate by classical techniques. Modern studies in this field have also explained and clarified mechanisms of human evolution and the origin of life. For good or bad, DNA technology allows absolute determination of individual identity from extremely small amounts of human tissue samples, and is now routinely discussed by the lay public in cases of disputed parentage, murder trials, etc. In short DNA technology, along with the computer has led to a fundamental change in our society in a few short decades.

Personally, what life lesson have you taken from your vocation?

The most important lesson that I have taken from my vocation is that understanding of scientific principles is essential to life in this century and in the upcoming one. Half of the products that I use in my household, including cleaning agents, food additives, plastics, and drugs require chemical understanding to use properly or to avoid misuse; as a good consumer of medicine, I expect my doctor to discuss rationally the various drugs or procedures that he might suggest. Understanding of the many effects of overpopulation is essential in understanding day to day problems such as droughts, crime, poverty, etc., and in combating the dogma of politicians and religious leaders. Juror understanding of DNA technology can help to prevent excesses of lawyers in criminal cases.

Who were your mentors?

Two men have had a profound and irreplaceable effect on my life, particularly on my professional and intellectual life. Mr. Philip Fordyce, my high school biology teacher first stimulated my search for knowledge. His inspiration taught me that learning was important fun, and a lifelong pursuit. All of my achievements stem directly from a "poor attempt to emulate the man." At a later stage in my career, John Vane, a consultant at my company, The Squibb Institute for Medical Research, served not only as a truly superior scientific consultant, but also as my personal mentor, suggesting the first project that led to my scientific success, and introducing me to various scientific giants in the field of medicine. He is now Sir John Vance, a Nobel Laureate, and was kind enough to cross the ocean this week to attend ceremonies honoring me as recipient of the Lasker Award in Clinical Medicine, an award previously won by Vane himself, and often a precursor for the Nobel Prize.

In your experience, what is the greatest misconception the public has about your vocation or the people in that vocation?

I think that the greatest misconception that the public has about scientists is that they are boring, stuffy individuals who are not very well rounded or creative; they often also consider science itself to be boring. Part of the reason for this is that we have failed to make understanding of science a key part in the education and daily life of the public at large. It is often considered as something to be avoided in school and of no relevance to normal life. Of course, science is not merely memorizing facts from text books, but a highly creative mechanism for asking questions about nature and of discovering details about how nature works, details that often lead to whole new fields of understanding. Individuals who are ignorant of science cannot really function in our modern society, and are often destined to be the pawns of politicians, and others who wish to control their lives.

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