How many of us could survive the visceral zone turmoil of watching three former colleagues accepting the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry (which included a financial award of $1.4 million), knowing that we had contributed to their success? Yet Douglas Prasher, holding a Ph.D. in biochemistry, was a mere observer in the audience (with his wife) as a guest of the winners. Their generosity was almost certainly the honest realization that they would not have been there without his help.
At that moment, Prasher’s fortunes had so deteriorated that he was driving a customer service van for a car dealership in Huntsville, Ala. Fortunately, Prasher had a very productive garden that was a ready source of food. The times were hard on the family and took a heavy toll on Douglas’ sense of self-esteem. His young daughter said, “Papa doesn’t smile anymore.”
This sad account of Prasher’s struggle to find his place in the world of science, his fall before reaching the peak and his eventual redemption is inspiring. His story exemplifies the archetypal pattern and timeless drama of hope and triumph in a valley of despair. For those who wish to read the scientific details, the complete story, written by Yudhigit Bhattacharjee, can be found in the April 2011 issue of Discover magazine.
My interest in this essay was spurred by a fascination with biographies revealing the obstacles and personal problems faced by the pioneers in the various sciences. In addition to the almost daily crises that could have blocked their quests for fame, there were cases of simultaneous discoveries that resulted in heated contests about who came first. Pride in being first was a powerful motivating force.
Douglas Prasher began his promising career by successfully cloning a gene for GFP (green fluorescent protein) in the 1970s. This made it possible to study the behavior of cells, tissues and organs at close range. He was employed as a molecular biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, with the possibility of a long career.
In a job that, to some extent, is dependent on grants for survival, Prasher failed to obtain an extension of the funds needed to continue his research to discover if the GFP gene could induce bacteria to glow. The GFP gene would be used as a tracer chemical in other organisms. If there had been a successful expansion in the use of this gene at an earlier period, Prasher might well have been among those honored at the Stockholm ceremonies.
Instead, he gave the gene to his colleagues and began a series of jobs that proved to be unappealing. In addition, other sources of grant funds did not materialize and a combination of “missed connections, psychological roadblocks and bad breaks” conspired to push Douglas into making a desperate choice to drive a service van at a car dealership.
In spite of his decline and near isolation, Prasher was most generous to those who would request a GFP gene for their own research. In October 2008, he got word that his colleagues would be awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. The publicity that followed the announcement brought attention to Prasher, and he began to receive offers from firms needing his expertise.
With the acceptance of a new job and the re-entry into communication with his peers, a friend of Prasher said, “the cloud of depression he had lived under for years was finally lifting.” It is refreshing to become aware of such a beautiful account of human success in a world inundated with suffering and failure.
I am reminded of an event not long ago. While driving along a country road, I saw a battered, hopeless-looking person plodding along the side of the road. The sight was so moving that when I got home, I wrote a poem. His fate could have been repeated by Douglas Prasher or any one of us. Only the first and last stanzas appear.
A beaten man at tortured pace,
Shows weathered skin and wrinkled face.
He walks footsore — is tired and bent,
And makes the hardest heart lament.
When honest we must all confess,
That though we hurt and suffer less.
Some blessings come not by our plan,
But for sheer chance — we’d be that man.
The hope we have that each of us can climb out of our personal pits of hurt and gloom gives each the will to try again.
Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.