This Day in Jewish History

1906: Visionary Biologist Who Saw Vietnam War Clearly Is Born

George Wald, teenage dilettante turned Nobel laureate, made it to Nixon’s enemies list, attended Tehran conference on West’s evils.

November 18, 1906 was the birthday of biologist George Wald, who had the distinction of being both a Nobel laureate and a member of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.”

Wald won the award for his discoveries about the chemistry and physiology of vision, and used his status as Nobel laureate – and professor at Harvard University – as a bully pulpit to speak out about his opposition to the Vietnam War, which he called the “most shameful episode in the whole of American history,” and in favor of nuclear disarmament.

George Wald was born on New York’s Lower East Side and grew up in Brooklyn. Both his parents were Jewish immigrants from Europe: His father, Isaac Wald, was from a village near Przemsyl, in Austrian Poland, while his mother, the former Ernestine Rosenmann, had been born in a town near Munich. Both worked in New York’s garment industry after arriving in the United States in 1890.

Growing up, George was interested in electrical engineering; in 1919, he assembled a crystal detector radio so that he and his friends could listen to the World Series (there’s no record of how he reacted to the news that emerged the following year that the Chicago White Sox baseball team had thrown the series to the Cincinnati Reds).

As a teenager, Wald also was involved in a troupe of performers that took a vaudeville act around to Jewish community centers. (In a reminiscence of his father, musician Elijah Wald, on his website, recounts some of the jokes George Wald told with a “Jewish accent,” including one whose punch line consisted of the question “Fah vat? Fah vat?,” to which the proper response would be, “Fah notting!!”)

What a fruit fly sees

After graduating from the first class of what later became known as the Brooklyn Technical High School, and having lost interest in engineering after a visit to the Western Electric laboratory in New Jersey, Wald entered New York University as a pre-law student. From that he gravitated to pre-med, but settled on biology after reading Sinclair Lewis’ 1925 novel “Arrowsmith,” about a physician who finds his real calling as a researcher. He also spent two summers working on a passenger ship that sailed between New York and Buenos Aires.

After graduation from NYU, Wald entered a doctoral program in zoology at Columbia University. There he encountered the physiologist Selig Hecht, who studied photoreceptor cells, and under whom Wald began working on the mechanics of vision in fruit flies.

Wald completed his Ph.D. in 1932, and, with a fellowship from the National Research Council, began a year of work with three distinguished scientists in Germany and Switzerland. The year ended early after his sponsor instructed Wald, as a Jew, to leave Germany after Adolf Hitler took power, but he had enough time to identify the presence of vitamin A in the retinas of frogs.

Together with Haldan Keffer Hartline of the United States and Ragnar Granit of Sweden, Wald was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 1967, for discoveries regarding the processes by which light is perceived by photo-sensitive cells in the retina, at the back of the eye. Changes at the molecular level are then converted into electrical impulses that are transmitted by the optic nerve to the brain, which is where “vision” actually takes place. Wald’s research improved understanding of both night vision and color blindness.

In 1934, Wald joined the faculty at Harvard, where he was admired no less for his teaching than for his research, and remained there until his retirement in 1977. In the 1960s and ‘70s, he grew his hair long and spoke out frequently about Vietnam and about nuclear weapons, getting himself arrested several times, as well as earning himself a place on President Nixon’s “enemies list.” In 1980 he defied Justice Department orders when he traveled to Tehran, while U.S. hostages were being held there by the revolutionary Islamic government, to participate in a conference dedicated to exposing “Crimes of America.”

George Wald died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on April 12, 1997, at the age of 90.