Actions of MIT’s 15th president have ‘grown to inspire generations,’ Reif says.
In 1988, at the age of 98, Ivan R. Cottrell, a retired dentist in Rochester, NY, had been teaching himself molecular biology and immunology for eight years.
"He would sit down in his apartment with a big immunology textbook and a medical dictionary and pore over the latest articles in the professional journals such as Science, Nature, Cell, Scientific American," said David Ferris of Rochester, his attorney. "He would read voraciously, and referred to it as his work. He had been an avid skier and tennis player into his 80s, and now, in his 90s, he would say, 'I can't do physical exercise any more, but I can still do my work.'"
Mr. Ferris was recalling his five-year association with Dr. Cottrell, who died in 1989 at the age of 99, at a June 15 informal celebration at the Ivan R. Cottrell Laboratory in the new MIT biology building. The ceremony was honoring Dr. Cottrell's unsolicited bequest of $4 million to MIT to support both the teaching and research work of Professor David Baltimore. Through investment over three years, the fund has grown to $5 million.
The ceremony was also celebrating Dr. Baltimore's return last month to MIT, where he has been a graduate student, a postdoctoral fellow and since 1968, a faculty member, including eight years as director of the affiliated Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. Professor Baltimore won the Nobel Prize in 1975 for his 1970 discovery at MIT of reverse transcriptase, an enzyme that catalyzes the conversion of RNA to DNA and provides a technique for studying the relationship between certain types of viruses and cancer. Dr. Baltimore returned here after nearly four years at Rockefeller University in New York, first as president and later, as research scientist.
Dr. Cottrell, who was born in Norwood, MA, in 1890, graduated from the Harvard School of Dental Medicine in 1912. He was a friend of George Eastman, and he recalled to associates Eastman's gift of $20 million to MIT to build the Cambridge campus.
Dr. Cottrell developed his own considerable fortune from his dental practice and from investments. He was a bachelor and had no direct heirs, and he wanted to make sure his money went to a center where there was a critical mass of research in immunology, Mr. Ferris said.
Dr. Erling Johansen, dean of the Tufts University Dental School and formerly head of the Dental School at the University of Rochester, recalled Dr. Cottrell, his friend of 42 years. "He was on my faculty at Rochester and every Tuesday afternoon, he would come to our seminars to discuss recent developments in practice and science.... His basic interest in immunology came from the AIDS epidemic. He was greatly concerned about this threat to humanity."
Dr. Cottrell underlined and clipped the articles that especially attracted his attention, Mr. Ferris said. Asked if there was one particular article that had clinched Dr. Cottrell's decision to leave the money to Dr. Baltimore and MIT-("Yes, I'd like to know that too!" interjected Dr. Baltimore)-Mr. Ferris said there had not been a single article, although Dr. Cottrell had followed Professor Baltimore's work in Science over the years and a 1988 Nature speculation by Dr. Baltimore on the future of gene therapy for HIV-infected patients had greatly fascinated Dr. Cottrell.
Mr. Ferris brought with him Dr. Cottrell's underlined copy of Dr. Baltimore's September, 1988 Nature article, "Gene therapy--Intracellular Immunization." Dr. Baltimore wrote in the article (No. 381 of his 491 published articles): "At first blush, it seems hard to think of protecting an individual against an infection by genetically engineering resistance into the person's cells."
After outlining a complex proposed genetic engineering procedure involving bone marrow stem cells, he wrote, "I believe that this type of process has a real chance of success, and propose that it be called intracellular immunization.... I believe intracellular immunization has as good a chance as any other procedure of becoming a real AIDS therapy."
Dr. Baltimore, in the corridor outside the Ivan R. Cottrell laboratory, looked at the six-year-old Nature article anew. "You know," he mused, "when I wrote that, people said, 'Gene therapy--that's pie in the sky!' Now it's a whole industry!"
"There is no higher tribute to a scientist than to be recognized based solely on his or her published work," said Professor Philip A. Sharp, head of the biology department, in introducing Professor Baltimore. "The Ivan Cottrell professorship at MIT will be a fundamentally important addition to the Department of Biology work in the future." Dr. Sharp praised Professor Baltimore's research in virology, cell biology and immunology and his "major impact" in teaching scientists in his lab, in developing the MIT biology department, in helping establish the Center for Cancer Research, and in bringing the Whitehead Institute to MIT.
About his return to MIT, Dr. Baltimore said, "I came back to MIT, rather than go elsewhere, because I believe that the future of biology is happening here [and] will happen here. I started here as a virologist, and spent 10 years studying the polio virus. This led to the discovery of reverse transcriptase almost as a side issue. I spent 7 to 8 years in the Cancer Center, and began research in immunology in a serious way in the late 1970s."
His philosophy of research, Dr. Baltimore said, is simple: "Research is training in practice. We continually train ourselves to think new things. Research is teamwork. The technical support and office support is critical. Research thrives on commitment; that was key to my decision to come back to MIT to utilize the resources Dr. Cottrell has provided so generously. Research is enhanced by openness and collaboration, and this is a wonderfully open and collaborative building. Research is messy--there are no rules, so long as honesty is the guide. The 'scientific method' is really an invention of the philosophers. Scientists don't have a method; what they have is an immense curiosity, and young people who are willing to immerse themselves in the subject.
"I'm overwhelmed, by the generosity of this gift, and by the fact that somebody sits quietly, over a period of ten years, reading immunology without a direct professional interest," Dr. Baltimore added. "One tends to think of one's publications as going out to the community of scholars, but I've come to realize there exists a whole other audience reading Science and Nature. That someone is doing that at the age of 90 to 99--I just find that astounding," said the Ivan R. Cottrell Professor of Biology.
A version of this article appeared in the June 29, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 37).