Childhood & Early Life
George Wald was born on November 18, 1906, in New York City, to Ernestine Rosenmann Wald and Isaac Wald. His parents were Jewish immigrants.
Young Wald gained his primary and secondary education from schools in Brooklyn. He later enrolled at the Brooklyn Technical High School in New York from where he graduated in 1922.
Wald gained admission at the Washington Square College at New York University. He graduated with a Bachelor degree in Science in 1927. In 1932, Wald earned the PhD degree in zoology from Columbia University. During his doctorate studies, Wald served as the student and research assistant of Professor Selig Hecht.
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Upon completing his doctorate degree, George Wald received a travel grant from US National Research Council. Making most of the opportunity, he travelled to Germany to work under the supervision of Otto Heinrich Warburg.
Together with Warburg, Wald identified the presence of vitamin A in the retina. Meanwhile, vitamin A then had just been isolated by scientist, Paul Karrer, in Zurich, Switzerland. Wald travelled to Zurich to complete the identification at Karrer’s laboratory.
Following his work at Zurich, Wald moved to Heidelberg, Germany where he worked briefly with Otto Fritz Meyerhof at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, before moving to the University of Chicago in 1933. At the University of Chicago, he spent his time researching at the laboratory of the Department of Physiology.
In 1934, Wald moved to Harvard University where he took up the post of a tutor in Biochemical Sciences. From 1935, he served as an instructor and tutor in Biology, later taking up the post of a Faculty Instructor from 1939 to 1944, Associate Professor from 1944 to 1948 and finally Professor of Biology from 1948. Meanwhile, in the summer term of 1956, Wald served as the visiting Professor of Biochemistry at the University of California.
At the Harvard University, Wald indulged in studies that showed how vitamin A improved vision. He also studied how cells in the retina perceive colour, black and white, and passed images to the brain.
Through his research and experiments, Wald discovered that Vitamin A was a component of retina. He also showed that when pigment rhodopsin was exposed to light, it yielded the protein opsin and a compound containing vitamin A. This suggested that vitamin A was essential in retinal function.
During the decade of 1950, Wald along with his colleagues extracted pigments from the retina using chemical methods. With the help of a spectrophotometer, he measured the light absorbance of the pigments. Since the absorbance of light by retina pigments corresponded to the wavelengths that best activated photoreceptor cells, this experiment showed the wavelengths that the eye could best detect.
For much of his initial research, Wald, along with his colleagues, was primarily measuring the absorbance of rhodopsin, which was the main photopigment in rods. It was only later that using the technique of microspectrophotometry, Wald measured the absorbance directly from cells, rather than from an extract of the pigments. This helped him to determine the absorbance of pigments in the cone cells.
Leaving Harvard in 1977, Wald lectured and travelled widely in the interest of peace and human rights. In 1980, he travelled to Iran during hostage crisis, though he was forbidden to do so.
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In 1986, along with other Nobel laureates he was invited to fly to Moscow to advise Mikhail Gorbachev on environmental questions. Upon meeting Gorbahev, Wald fearlessly asked the former about the arrest, detention and exile of Yelena Bonner and her husband, fellow Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov. Interestingly, Gorbachev knew nothing about it and acted upon it almost immediately, releasing Bonner and Sakharov, in December 1986.
Awards & Achievements
In 1967, George Wald, Ragnar Granit and Haldan Keffer Hartline were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries concerning the primary physiological and chemical visual processes in the eye".
He was conferred with the Eli Lilly Award for Fundamental Research in Biochemistry from the American Chemical Society in 1939. In 1953, he was honoured with the Lasker Award of the American Public Health Association for his outstanding discoveries in biochemistry.
In 1955, he received the Proctor Medal of the Association for Research in Ophthalmology. In 1959, he was bestowed with the Rumford Medal by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In 1966, he won the Ives Medal of the Optical Society of America. In 1967, he jointly received the Paul Karrer Medal by the University of Zurich with his wife, Ruth Hubbard.
Personal Life & Legacy
Wald’s first marriage was to Frances Kingsley in 1931. With Frances, Wald had two sons, Michael and David. Their marriage ended in a divorce.
He married Ruth Hubbard in 1958. Hubbard bore him a son, Elijah Wald—the award-winning musicologist and musician—and a daughter, Deborah, a renowned family law attorney.
He breathed his last on April 12, 1997 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.