November 18 – Happy Birthday, George Wald!

Posted on November 18, 2016

You know you're going to earn yourself a Wikipedia page when you've won a Nobel Prize! George Wald, born on this date in 1906, earned his Nobel in Physiology / Medicine, along with two others.

Wald figured out that Vitamin A was important to the retina, and he was able to measure the absorbance of different colors of light by both rods and cones.

Even though he was born in New York City, George Wald was working with several German scientists, in Germany, when Adolf Hitler came to power. Wald did the smart thing – as a Jew, Europe was suddenly much more dangerous for him! – and returned to the U.S. in 1933.

He worked and taught at the University of Chicago and Harvard University; he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and won several awards in addition to the Nobel Prize.

But I found it interesting that Wald spoke up often on political and social issues. Because of his Nobel Prize, Wald had a certain amount of fame; he utilized that fame to oppose the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race. He also was one of the people who traveled to Iran during the Iran hostage crisis.

In 1986, Wald was invited to travel to Moscow by the government in order to advise Mikhail Gorbachev on the environment. But he took the opportunity to speak up on behalf of two Soviet scientists and fellow Nobel laureates who had been arrested and imprisoned in exile. Gorbachev denied any knowledge of the scientists' plight – and later that year, the couple were released!
I admire scientists who broaden our base of knowledge. And I admire people who leverage their fame to making life better for others. Speaking up to Gorbachev, especially, must have seemed risky, but George Wald was courageous enough to do so!

Also on this date:

Photography pioneer Louis Daguerre's birthday

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