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David Baltimore

  • Born: March 7, 1938, New York, New York

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0198
Interview Dates: 7 February 1994, 13 and 29 April 1995
Locations: New York, New York; Cambridge, New York; and Boston, New York
Interviewer: Sondra Schlesinger
No. of pages: 115

  Abstract of Interview

David Baltimore begins the series of interviews describing his interest in biology as a high-school student and throughout his college years at Swarthmore. During college, he spent a summer at Cold Spring Harbor where he met Cy Levinthal and Salva Luria, both of whom encouraged him to go to graduate school at MIT. As an undergraduate, Baltimore held an interest in viruses. Knowledge and study of animal virology were still very limited, and when he decided to devote his PH.D. thesis to this topic, he moved to Rockefeller University to join Richard M. Franklin who was working with mengovirus. In his graduate work, he discovered that cultured animal cells infected with mengovirus synthesized an enzyme that catalyzed the synthesis of viral RNA. This was the first example of a virus coding for an RNA-dependent RNA polymerase. He then began working with poliovirus, work that continued for many years. In 1965, Renato Dulbecco asked Baltimore to join him at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. There he initially focused on the replication of poliovirus RNA. With Mike Jacobson, a graduate student, he also began studying viral protein synthesis. Their work contributed to the recognition of the importance of proteolytic processing in the synthesis of eukaryotic proteins. Baltimore left the Salk Institute after two and a half years and returned to MIT in 1968 as an Associate Professor of Microbiology. He continued to focus his research on poliovirus, but also began work on vesicular stomatitis virus [VSV]. He and his wife, Alice Huang, who at the time was a research associate in his lab, discovered that VSV carried an RNA-dependent RNA polymerase within the virus particle. This work provided the insight that led to his discovery of reverse transcriptase—the enzyme in retroviruses that transcribes DNA from RNA—and won Baltimore the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1975 along with Howard Temin and Renato Dulbecco. Baltimore’s work with retroviruses was the beginning of his interest in and work on cancer and tumor biology. In the mid-1970s, Baltimore expanded his research interests into the field of immunology, specifically into the areas of B cell development and antibody diversity. Baltimore concludes the interviews with a discussion of the discovery of reverse transcriptase, and thoughts on his research on poliovirus, retroviruses and immunology at MIT in the 1980s.


1960 B.A., Chemistry, Swarthmore College
1964 Ph.D. The Rockefeller University

  Professional Experience

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1963 - 1964 Postdoctoral fellow

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1968 - 1972 Associate Professor of Microbiology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1972 - 1990 Professor of Biology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1994 - 1997 Ivan R. Cottrell Professor of Molecular Biology and Immunology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1995 - 1997 Institute Professor

Albert Einstein College of Medicine

1964 - 1965 Postdoctoral Fellow

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies

1965 - 1968 Research Associate

American Cancer Society

1973 - 1983 Professor of Microbiology

American Cancer Society

1994 - 1997 Research Professor

Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research

1982 - 1991 Member

Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research

1982 - 1990 Director

The Rockefeller University

1990 - 1991 President

The Rockefeller University

1990 - 1994 Professor

California Institute of Technology

1997 - present President


1970 First recipient of the Gustave Stern Award in Virology
1971 Warren Triennial Prize from the Massachusetts General Hospital
1971 Eli Lilly and Co. Award in Microbiology and Immunology
1974 United States Steel Award in Molecular Biology, National Academy of Sciences
1974 Elected Member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences
1974 Elected Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1974 Gairdner Foundation Annual Award
1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
1976 Honorary Doctorate, Swarthmore College
1978 Elected Member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences
1980 Elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
1985 Honorary Fellowship, American Medical Writers Association
1987 Elected Foreign Member, The Royal Society (England)
1987 Honorary Doctorate, Mt. Holyoke College
1987 Honorary Membership, Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society
1988 Elected Member of the Institute of Medicine
1990 Honorary Doctorate, Mt. Sinai Medical Center, New York, NY

Honorary Doctorate, Bard, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY


Honorary Doctorate, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland

1991 Honorary Member, Japanese Biochemical Society
1992 Fellow, American Academy of Microbiology
1997 Member, American Philosophical Society
1998 Fellow, California Council on Science and Technology
1998 Honorary Doctorate, Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel
1999 Fellow, Association for Women in Science
1999 Honorary Doctorate, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Graduate Education 1

Interest in biology. Attending MIT. Cy Levinthal. Thesis in animal virology. Summer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Richard M. Franklin. Rockefeller University. Mengovirus. Igor Tamm. Viral RNA synthesis. Poliovirus.

Research 22

RNA virus enzyme. Returning to MIT. Polio double-stranded RNA. Postdoc at Einstein. Renato Dulbecco. Becoming a Research Associate at the Salk Institute.

Salk Institute 32

Interest in replicitive intermediates. Protein synthesis. Michael Jacobson, Alice Huang, and Marc Girard. Sabbatical in Paris. Continuing work on polio.

Career at MIT 42

VSV research. Continuing poliovirus research. Messenger RNA. Virus work worldwide. Defective particles. Developing a course in animal virology. Atmosphere of MIT during late 1960s. American Society for Microbiology (ASM). Biological warfare.

Accomplishments in Science 57

Gustave Stern Award. VSV research with Alice Huang. RNA tumor viruses. Howard Temin. Discovery of reverse transcriptase. Leukemia viruses. Salvador Luria. Establishment of the Cancer Center. ASM Eli Lilly Award. Nobel Prize.

Later Career 75

Thoughts on winning Nobel Prize. Serving on Advisory Panels. Becoming American Cancer Society Professor. Interest in biological hazards. Recombinant DNA.

Final Thoughts 89

Molecular immunology. Antibodies. Decade of work on tumor viruses. Environment of research laboratories. Polio vaccine patent.

Notes 96

Index 99

  About the Interviewers

Sondra Schlesinger

Sondra Schlesinger is professor of molecular microbiology at Washington University School of Medicine. She received her Ph.D. in biological chemistry from the University of Michigan and spent three years as a postdoctoral fellow with Professor Boris Magasanik at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she worked on enzyme induction and regulation in bacteria. She joined the faculty at Washington University in 1964, where initially she continued her research in the field of microbial genetics and physiology. In the early 1970s, she began her research work on the structure and replication of animal RNA viruses, which continues to this day. Dr. Schlesinger has over one hundred publications spanning these areas of microbiology. She was president of the American Society for Virology in 1992–1993, at which time she began her present interest and work in the history of virology.

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