Nobel recipient looks back at roots

Science interest took shape in public schools

James Rothman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, grew up in Haverhill.
Yale University
James Rothman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, grew up in Haverhill.

In between the congratulatory calls, e-mails, and interviews with world media following Monday’s announcement that James Rothman had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine, the Haverhill-born professor and chairman of the cell biology department at Yale University was thinking lot about his hometown.

Now 62, Rothman was a child in the 1950s and said his biggest influences were his parents (his father, Dr. Marty Rothman, was a well-known Haverhill pediatrician who made house calls), his teachers, and the excitement of growing up during a time when breakthroughs in science occurred regularly.

“It was easy to get into science because society was interested in science,” said Rothman, who was awarded the Nobel for his work on how molecular messages are transmitted inside and outside human cells.


Rothman shares the prize with Randy Schekman of the University of California Berkeley, and Thomas Sudhof of Stanford University. According to the Nobel committee, the three scientists were honored for solving the mystery of how the cell organizes its transport system.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Rothman, who left Haverhill after the eighth grade to attend the Pomfret School in Connecticut, graduated from Yale in 1971 with a degree in physics. He earned a doctorate in biological chemistry from Harvard Medical School in 1976. Over the years, he served as an assistant professor at Stanford School of Medicine, was the founding chairman of the cellular biochemistry and biophysics department at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and was the director of the Columbia University Genome Center.

In addition to the Nobel, Rothman has won several other awards, including the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, the Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, and the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience.

“To the extent that I have anything approaching solid American values, and I think that I do, they come from a place like Haverhill,” said Rothman, who was born in the city’s old Hale Hospital and grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood where children played ball in the street and parents left their doors unlocked.

“Kids were always out, and no one organized our time,” he said.


That sense of independence led him to do things such as take a bus as a 7-year-old with friends to go bowling in downtown Haverhill, and then lunch on a hot dog. It also led to a penchant for collecting Superman comic books, and altering model rocket kits.

Donald Tye, who is Rothman’s oldest friend, recalls that launching model rockets was a big deal for Rothman.

“Where we would put the engines on the rockets and send them up, Jimmy had all these ideas of putting payloads on and shooting them up and having them come down on parachutes. This was a major hobby for him,” said Tye, now a lawyer in Boston. He was born on the same day in the same hospital as Rothman in 1950, and his parents were close friends with the Rothmans.

“My dad was one of the Merrimack Valley’s first dermatologists and was a resident at Bellevue in New York City with Marty Rothman, Jim’s dad, and convinced him to be one of Haverhill’s first full-time pediatricians — or so goes the legend,” said Tye.

Tye said he was not surprised his old friend won medicine’s most prestigious award.


“Looking back, you could really see the development of an independent mind,” said Tye.

After attending Walnut Square Elementary School, Rothman earned a spot in an accelerated class for seventh- and eighth-grade students at the John Greenleaf Whittier Middle School. Rothman credits the teachers in his hometown with nourishing his interest in science.

“Every single teacher that I had throughout public school in Haverhill in that era was a dedicated, talented individual,” he said. He said they were as excited as the students when the Space Age began. Rothman remembers listening over the school’s public address system to a radio broadcast reporting on Alan Shepard becoming the first American to travel into space .

“Everybody listened, just transfixed, not even knowing what was happening,” he said. “It was amazing. How could you not be interested in science in that kind of environment?”

Dante Ippolito, who taught humanities in Haverhill’s accelerated program for seventh- and eighth-graders, has followed Rothman’s career, and was not surprised when he heard that his former student had received the Nobel Prize.

“He stood out in my mind just because of who he was and how he acted. He was very reserved, very intellectual, very serious. He asked very good questions. I could almost talk to him like an adult,” said Ippolito.

After learning that he had won the award, Rothman called his mother, Gloria, who now lives in Tulsa, Okla. The phone call woke her from sleep, and when she learned of the news, she thought of her husband, who passed away in 2005.

“I just wish my husband was in bed next to me and I could give him a poke and say guess what,” she said.

Rothman, who is married to Yale professor Joy Hirsch, brought his daughter to Haverhill last summer to show off the old neighborhood. When they reached his childhood home on Marsh Avenue, he found a full-grown tree that his father had planted in honor of the birth of Rothman’s son 35 years ago.

After inviting the visitors inside, the home’s owners told them that during a hurricane they had taken extra care to protect the tree.

“Little did they know how important this tree was for me and my family,” said Rothman.

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@
. Follow him on Twitter @WriteRosenberg.