George Nemethy 3/28/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

His name was George Nemethy. His was a great mind. His name first crossed my path when I purchased a book on Biophysics which crossed two very diverse disciplines of science, biology and physics. To some readers, this might seem a little odd, but it’s actually quite natural. Any biological entity requires energy to live, and energy is the discipline of physics. Much of my own work, in fact, is in this discipline.

As it turns out, academic circles are rather small. I had graduated with my doctorate in 1992 and found my first post-doctoral research position at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in the Department of Biophysics. New York City doesn’t have a lot of space, and although the Mt. Sinai Medical Center took two square blocks of the city, it was a vertical campus. The very tall main building had security guards at each entrance, and a series of elevators to take people to their respective floors. I was, if my memory serves, on the twenty-first floor. The elevator rides were relatively slow; it would take a few minutes to get to my floor.

I was shocked to discover that Dr. Nemethy was one of the faculty members at the school. At MY school. The author of this textbook and very well-known biophysicist delving into the world of protein structures was under the same roof.

It blew my mind.

I’m not big on hero-worship, but there are a few people that I have particular respect for because of their accomplishments. Protein structure is one of the deepest mysteries of chemistry today and of critical importance because if proteins have the wrong structure, they can’t work. Proteins are the work horses of our chemical makeup, so if they unfold, for example because of pH imbalance or fever, well, we die. His pioneering work in this discipline laid the foundation for my own research, and you have to respect that.

One day, I hopped on the elevator to head up to the office with another man, and before the doors closed, in walks George. He was rather smaller in stature than I had anticipated, and if you asked me to guess his familial heritage, well, no. But, what the heck, he was George Nemethy.

There’s something about being vulnerable in front of other people that, well, you just don’t do it. I wanted to introduce myself to Dr. Nemethy, but with this other man in the elevator just, well, no. Fortunately, somewhere around floor four or five, the elevator stops, and this other person, this interloper steps off. I don’t know where George is making is egress, but I could have a good fifteen or so floors when it is just the two of us sharing a small space.

I take a deep breath, turn to him and introduce myself. I explain how I have his textbook and have read at least some of his papers and explained that I just wanted to say what an honor it is to be working with him. He smiled, looked at me and said…nothing.

It’s not that he was rude. He smiled, he acknowledged me, he even shook my hand, but nothing? Not a word?

It wasn’t long after that that I discovered the reason. Dr. Nemethy had a brain tumor that had taken out his speech center. He didn’t say anything because he couldn’t.

To this day, I wonder if I had any influence at all. Was he inundated with admirers? Chemists, generally speaking, don’t exactly have throngs of admirers struggling for their attention, but as chemists go, he was a big one. I felt like a heel. I wasn’t really upset that he didn’t speak to me, but I did kind of assume that he was approached too often and just didn’t have the time for me.

I shouldn’t have.

And here is this man, with a brain tumor, unable to speak, facing the specter and yet, pushing on. He was continuing his research, publishing, pursuing his passion and helping to shed light on the mysteries of our universe despite his difficulties. As if his work alone wasn’t enough to admire, seeing him continuing through this is just so much more.

I’ve long had great respect for people who face cancer with courage. It’s nothing I’ve been through, but I’ve known many who have. My sister faced breast cancer, I have two incredible friends both of whom have faced particularly bad forms of cancer, and one of them has a sister that continues to fight on today. I’ve lost friends to cancer, including a fellow student who was a graduate student with me who found a lump in his penis that several months later would take his life. It’s painful, frightening, and I cannot imagine what it must be like to push through it. It makes me feel very small, but it also helps me to keep things in perspective. Life is precious, and as long as we have it, regardless of our situation, we can pursue our passion to the level that our strength will allow.

A year later I left Mt. Sinai for my second post-doctoral position. A year after that, on May 18, 1994, Dr. Nemethy’s research efforts ended forever.

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