In many respects, my career and my experiences with people and events have been seamless in that I cannot separate one from another. Without doubt, the thread of one's life should be within the matrix of the total human experience.
– Les Prix Nobel, 1994
Martin Rodbell was born on December 1, 1925, in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of a grocer. For the rest of his life, he proudly identified with his native city as a self-described "Baltimoron." In his teens, Rodbell attended Baltimore City College, a "magnet" public high school with a strong liberal arts tradition, and entered The Johns Hopkins University in 1943. Although he was clearly taken with science as a vocation, at Hopkins he followed two seemingly disparate fields of interest--biology and French existential literature--both of which had an enormous impact on his intellectual development. Rodbell maintained a strong love of literature and poetry throughout his life, often penning verses for important occasions.
Rodbell's studies at Hopkins were interrupted in 1944 when he left college for war service as a Navy radio operator. In 1946, he resumed his studies and earned a B.S. in biology in 1949. Rodbell remained at Hopkins for another year to take postgraduate courses in chemistry. In 1950, he married Barbara Ledermann, a German-born dancer and photographer; later that same year, the Rodbells moved to Seattle so that Martin could enter the Ph.D. program in biochemistry at the University of Washington. Over the course of the following decade, the Rodbells had four children: Paul, Suzanne, Andrew, and Phillip.
In 1954, Rodbell completed his doctoral thesis, under the direction of Donald Hanahan, on aspects of the metabolism of lecithin (a complex mixture of phospholipids) in the liver. In the fall of that year, Rodbell accepted a postdoctoral position as a research associate in biochemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he stayed for two years. Working as a junior instructor in biochemistry at Illinois, he realized that his true calling was not in teaching but rather in continuing his research on the biochemistry of lecithin in cell membranes.
In 1956, Rodbell accepted a position as a research biochemist in the laboratory of Christian Anfinsen at the National Heart Institute (now the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute), National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland. During this time, Rodbell studied the composition of lipid proteins and glucose in adipose (or fat) tissue. In 1961, Rodbell transferred to the laboratories of the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases. (These laboratories are now part of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases).
By the mid-1960s, Rodbell's research interests had shifted from the metabolic functions of lipid proteins to the effect of hormones (especially insulin and glucagon) on individual cells. In 1969, Rodbell outlined a system for describing the components of cellular communication that he called "signal transduction." Signal transduction theory helped him discover the importance and function of G-proteins in the early 1970s, which became the basis for his Nobel prize-winning contribution to biomedical science.
In 1975 he became Chief of the Laboratory of Nutrition and Endocrinology at NIAMD, where he remained until 1985. In 1985, Rodbell left the Bethesda campus to become Scientific Director of the NIH's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a position he held until 1989 when he became Chief of the Section on Signal Transduction there. By the time he retired from the NIEHS in 1994, his active career at the NIH had spanned thirty-eight years.
During his lifetime, Rodbell was a seasoned traveler, a writer of poetry, and a humanitarian scientist. In 1990, for example, he was briefly involved with Gordon Sato's Manzanar Project, established to create fish ponds in the Eritrean section of Ethiopia to help stave off famine. Among his other pursuits, Rodbell spent a year working in laboratories at the University of Brussels in Belgium and Leiden University in the Netherlands (1960-1961) and twice held visiting professorships at the Institute of Clinical Biochemistry, University of Geneva (1967-1968 and 1981-1983). He also traveled extensively throughout Canada, France, India, Israel, and the United States. He routinely facilitated meetings between graduate and postdoctoral students--many of whom still consider themselves Rodbell protégés--and the larger international community of scientists and scholars working on topics in molecular biology.
In 1994 Rodbell, along with Alfred G. Gilman of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (which is described more fully in the last section of this exhibit). As Nobel Laureate and Scientist Emeritus, Rodbell took seriously his new role in the public spotlight and spent the next few years lecturing at colleges and high schools. In November 1998, the NIEHS inaugurated the Martin Rodbell Lecture Series and asked Rodbell to be its first speaker. In his lecture, "Fifty Years in Science: Zigs and Zags with a Common Theme," Rodbell not only explained step by step how he came to discover the G-proteins, but reflected on the "Golden Age" of the NIH in the 1950s and 1960s. Sadly, this address proved to be his last public appearance. On December 7, 1998, just six days after his seventy-third birthday, he died in Chapel Hill of multiple organ failure after an extended illness.