It’s not every day you get to sit down with a Nobel Prize winner, but for this edition of “People in Your Neighborhood,” we spoke to 93-year-old La Jolla resident Roger Guillemin, who served as interim president of the Salk Institute for two years. Guillemin shares the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1977 “for the discoveries concerning the peptide hormone production of the brain.”
The father of six and grandfather (with the first great-grandson due at the end of this year) is also a member of La Jolla Parks & Beaches advisory group. When affirming or confirming, he says “you know it all” and “of course” without an ounce of condescension, and joyfully recalls the first time he visited the Salk Institute campus.
“I was invited by Dr. Salk, they were looking for new faculty to start a neurobiology or neuroendocrinology (department). I didn’t know about the place. When I saw it for the first time, I was so amazed. I thought to myself, ‘whatever the offer is, I’m going to say yes.’ And I’ve been here ever since.”
Where did you grow up?
Burgundy, France … I became very interested in fundamental biology and eventually that would lead to medical school. In France, you can start practicing medicine before you get the M.D. degree, so long as you have completed a certain amount of schooling. So I started practicing medicine and seeing patients.
How did your medical studies evolve?
One day, I saw that a man from Montreal named Hans Selye, who is the one who introduced the word ‘stress’ to medical literature, was giving lectures in Paris. I went, and I couldn’t believe what he was saying. It was hypnotizing. There were colored slides on the screen, can you believe it? I wanted to study what he was talking about, so I approached him afterward, and after some talking, he agreed.
I took a plane for the first time in my life and went to Montreal. I stayed there for a year and studied extensively. There were about 12 people working in the lab. Three of us became ill with TB. One died, the other had part of a lung removed. I got meningitis. But it would happen that streptomycin was just introduced as a medication against TB, so I was admitted as a patient in the local hospital. I received a spinal injection every day for a month. It worked so well, I married the nurse that administered it, and we are still married!
What brought you to Salk?
When I decided to leave (Montreal), I had several offers for places to work and study. … A friend convinced me to go to Baylor College as a staffer in the college of medicine. That’s where I did all the work that led to the discovery of the brain molecule that controls the pituitary gland functions.
We published papers on this, and one of them must have gotten the attention of Jonas Salk, because I was invited here to establish a neuroendocrinology laboratory. We kept working on these brain molecules, and eventually, we isolated and characterized the molecule.
The first molecule was an incredibly simple and small one. So small, in fact, we thought we made a mistake. But we learned this was indeed the molecule that is in all our brains that controls the function of the thyroid gland. That was the beginning. Later, we characterized six or seven other molecules made in the brain.
Was that the work for which you earned the Nobel Prize?
Of course. Quite a few people in the world were trying to isolate these molecules, but could not for various technical reasons. That was the work that led us to Stockholm for the Nobel Prize.
During the Nobel Prize ceremony, there were representatives from the Nobel Foundation and the king and queen were there. The king gives you a book with your name on it with all the Nobel laureates and the medal, and when I sat down, I realized he had given me (co-recipient Andrew) Schally’s book and he had given Schally my book. We nudged each other and chuckled. We were not about to switch books in front of 800 people and dignitaries. So we switched books privately.
Where is the Nobel Prize and the book now?
I gave the book to Baylor College with the condition that it be displayed in a way and place where students could walk by, see it and maybe think, ‘He got the Nobel Prize, maybe I can, too.’ The medal is in safe keeping. I told one of my daughters to sell it when my wife and I pass away, and divide the money between her brothers and sisters.
How many children do you have?
Six — five daughters and one son. My wife is Lucienne. I’m 93 and she is 96 (chuckles).
How did you get involved with La Jolla Parks & Beaches?
I was reading in your paper some of the issues that were being discussed and wanted to get involved. One issue that is important to me, but not everyone, is the planned reservoirs. One is being proposed at a park near my home. In my opinion, it is a social tragedy and I’m not convinced it’s even necessary. That little park is going to be destroyed for years.
What do you like to do in your free time?
In my office, there are posters for the lectures held here in my name, which have been given at Salk every year. I made those posters. I was one of the first people in my lab here at Salk to use computers for graphing of bio-acids. I thought about putting color functions into the programming and creating digital art. So I made the images for the posters and I love to create pieces on the computer. I have some very early computer paintings in the office. … A couple of my computer paintings hang in the president’s office. Whatever you have in mind, you can put it onto canvas or paper.
Do you have a philosophy in life?
Help people. I really wanted to be a physician … I knew all my efforts would be to help people.
Editor’s Note: La Jolla Light’s “People in Your Neighborhood” series shines a spotlight on notable locals we all wish we knew more about! Light staff is out on the town talking to familiar, friendly faces to bring you their stories. If you know someone you’d like us to profile, send the lead via e-mail to email@example.com or call us at (858) 875-5950.