Business & Tech

Five things you should know about Wally Gilbert

Wally Gilbert shared a 1980 Nobel Prize for developing one of the first methods to rapidly sequence DNA.
Jim Davis/Globe Staff
Wally Gilbert shared a 1980 Nobel Prize for developing one of the first methods to rapidly sequence DNA.

Wally Gilbert’s probing intellect seems to know no bounds. He trained as a theoretical physicist at Harvard University and the University of Cambridge in the 1950s, but soon turned to molecular biology, and ended up sharing a 1980 Nobel Prize for developing one of the first methods to rapidly sequence DNA. He ran a research laboratory at Harvard, then left to co-found two companies, Biogen and Myriad Genetics Inc., as the biotech industry took off. Now a sprightly 86, the pioneering Cambridge scientist spends much of his time as a photographer specializing in digital art. His photographs have been exhibited from Poland to South Korea. Nearly 70 are on display through April 9 at LabCentral, the nonprofit incubator for life science start-ups in Cambridge. If you want to buy one, it will cost you. Some of his pictures, he said, have fetched $7,000.

1. Using a two-megapixel camera, Gilbert started taking pictures of colorful objects and architectural features that caught his eye in Europe — a tangerine made of marzipan in Sicily, three doorways slicing through orange walls in a Madrid museum. His later work focused on abstractions and patterns resulting from superimposed images. In art as in science, he said, he craves discovering something new.

“The similarity I see is the creative drive. [The theoretical physicist Richard] Feynman used to describe this as, there you are, late at night, and you know something that nobody else in the world knows. We’re constantly in search of novelty.”

2. He has made big pictures — some are 8 by 12 feet — using a small digital camera.

“The general attitude was that with a two-megapixel camera, you could make pictures about postcard size and, of course, if you just blow them up without any processing, then you see a tremendous pixilation. But it turns out that the [computer] programs were pretty capable of blowing them up and getting quite effective images out of them.”

3. Gilbert had a famous father-in-law — the legendary left-wing investigative journalist I.F. Stone. As a child, Gilbert moved to the Washington, D.C., area in 1939 because his father, a Harvard economist, joined a New Deal brain trust under Harry Hopkins. The Gilberts befriended the Stones in Washington. Gilbert met Stone’s daughter, Celia, when they were both 8. They married at 21. She is a poet and an artist.

“[Stone] was a delightful man. He loved the journalism that he did, and he was a profound believer in democracy — Jeffersonian democracy — in a real sense of the truth will make you free. His great theme was that all governments lie.” Of President Trump, Gilbert said, the late Stone would have been “infinitely disgusted.”

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4. Gilbert traces the booming biotech world to two groundbreaking discoveries in the early 1970s.

The major things that made the industry possible, the original thing, was cloning — the ability to move pieces of DNA around from one organism to another — and to make multiple copies of that piece of DNA. And then sequencing.

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5. Gilbert ran Biogen as chief executive from 1981 to 1984 and took the company public. He left, he said, after the board got tired of him. There are similarities between running a research lab at Harvard and a biotech start-up, he said. And big differences.

“Your role as CEO is you have to be able to convince people to give you money. And you have to make the company grow. You have to be able to decide things quickly enough so that things happen. You have to be able to take the heat if they don’t happen right, and, if you make a wrong decision, to be able to change it. One has leisure as a scientist running a laboratory. You have the leisure to wait until you’re quite sure of things. You’re running a company, and you don’t have that leisure.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com