Hamilton Smith on 1978 Nobel Prize
  Hamilton Smith     Biography    
Recorded: 03 Mar 2006

I didn’t even know when they announced it. When I heard…well, I remember it was in October. I was headed in to – I’d just finished breakfast and I was about to go in to teach students in microbiology at the school. And I got a call from the Associated Press, and they said, we got information that you’ve won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and we’d like to have a brief interview with you. As my wife said, I just sort of turned pale, and my mouth suddenly became a bunch of cotton. I couldn’t talk. I finally said call me back in fifteen minutes. Meanwhile another press agency called, United, I think, United Press. Anyway, I struggled through the brief interview with them and then headed into class, and of course everybody was all excited there. We actually went through most of the class before – because Dan Nathans and I were in the same department, we both were co-recipients. So finally Dan threw up his hands and said, this is enough, let’s go celebrate. So the students got the day off.

That noon there was a big press conference. I must say I was-I didn’t particularly like it. You know, I’m not used to all that publicity. I was very nervous. I didn’t know how to behave. I finally just said the hell with it, I’ll behave like I normally do. But, you know, you always have this image of a Nobel Laureate being somebody that’s kind of a pompous ass, that sits there and pontificates, saying very intelligent things. I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t play the role, is what it amounted to. So I finally just gave up on it. But Dan did it very well. But not in an obnoxious way, I mean he’s very polished and very gathered. I mean, for example, when the press first called us and asked what I thought, I said “I’m totally flabbergasted,” which found a headline in the paper. But Dan told me that when they called him, he says, "I don’t want to give you an interview until it’s confirmed by the Nobel Committee" – which was the right response. It could have been a joke, you know.

They sent a telegram, which is hanging up in the library at Hopkins, informing us. But that came in around 10 or so in the morning. But nowadays, you always hear from the Nobel Committee first; they don’t release it to the press, which is good I guess, because there have been some bad mistakes on occasion. Two people with the same name. And in the interview they’d say, what is the prize for? And I said, "Well, I don’t know, I guess it’s for – probably for my restriction work – they didn’t tell me." But I didn’t anticipate it. I had no idea that things would be announced in October. I’m not one of these people that watches these things.

Hamilton Smith is a U.S. microbiologist born Aug. 23, 1931, New York, N.Y. Smith received an A.B. degree in mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley in 1952 and the M.D. degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1956. After six years of clinical work in medicine (1956-1962), he carried out research on Salmonella phage P22 lysogeny at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (1962-1967). In 1967, he joined the Microbiology Department at Johns Hopkins.

In 1968, he discovered the first TypeII restriction enzyme (HindII) and determined the sequence of its cleavage site. In, 1978 he was a co-recipient (with D. Nathans and W. Arber) of the Nobel in Medicine for this discovery.

He is currently the Scientific Director Synthetic Biology and Bioenergy Distinguished Professor at the J. Craig Venture Institute in Rockville, Maryland.

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