In a recent video from the series Conversations with Giants in Medicine, Nobel Laureate Paul Greengard discusses his work in neuroscience and the Nobel Prize.
In 2000, Greengard was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with two other men. His work paved the way for treatments for Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders. He established base knowledge for neurotransmitters and slow synaptic transmission that many neuroscientists and neurologists use today.
In the video, Greengard says that he did not get the “bug” of doing scientific research from home because the environment growing up was anti-intellectual. He suspects that going to college was an act of rebellion. Greengard used the G.I. Bill in order to go to college because he served in the military during World War II. He says he studied mathematics and physics. He planned to go to graduate school in order to work in theoretical physics. He states that he changed his mind after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“Almost immediately after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I felt that [theoretical physics] was not an area that I wanted to be very involved in, just because I thought there were better ways of spending my life than trying to destroy mankind.”
About that time, he learned about the then-nascent field of medical physics, or biophysics, and became interested in studying that. During this time, he says he decided it would be beneficial to learn about the underlying biochemical and molecular properties of nerve cells. He studied at John Hopkins University for his Ph.D before traveling to England and Holland for five years. He worked for nine years at a pharmaceutical company, which shaped the way Greengard did his research.
“It gave me an education of the sort that one might’ve gotten in medical school. At the time I was ready to do advanced studies, I decided not to go to medical school because at that time, it was very much of a hands-on profession where the physicians really couldn’t do very much for the patients. They were brilliant clinicians but there were very limited repertoire of tools that they had.”
He says that his key advance to medical science was discovering that the nervous system responded to neurotransmitters the way the endocrine system responded to hormones.
“People said unkind things [about the discovery]. Like, ‘This is heretical and nonsense.’ The interesting thing about it was that because it was considered so unlikely to be true, I had basically 15 years… to develop this story. By the time people accepted it, my research group had laid a lot of the foundation of the molecular bases for neurotransmission. So we didn’t have this ultra-heavy competition.”
Greengard mentions that in his conversations with other Nobel Prize winners revealed that they, too, contributed an advance that nobody believed at first.
“In many instances it was the same thing: They’ve done something very unconventional and nobody believed them for a while, and it was shown to be true. And if you think about it, it’s more or less the only way the thing could work. If you just did something that was very incremental, it wouldn’t be worthy of a Nobel Prize…. Occasionally there are different types of discoveries, but many of the discoveries that have been made were paradigm shifts where somebody did something that people didn’t accept because it was not consistent with a prevailing paradigm.”