The announcement that David Baltimore will retire next year as president of the California Institute of Technology has been greeted with a rich outpouring of encomiums that go well beyond the mandatory praise on such occasions.
What has not been mentioned is that the career of the brilliant biologist, who won a Nobel Prize at age 37, stands as well for the breadth and social responsibility of an American intellectual rooted in his Jewish heritage.
Such a man of science, like many of his peers, tends to be neither religious nor involved with the organized Jewish community. However, as The Journal reported in an earlier, lengthy interview with Baltimore, he "sees himself now as a secular Jew, but one whose outlook and achievement are rooted in his early Jewish upbringing and family life, and who hopes that he has transmitted the same values to his daughter."
On another level, Baltimore's biography represents the familiar success story of the American-born son of struggling immigrant parents ambitious for their children.
His father, Richard, was the only son of a poor, Orthodox family from Lithuania, orphaned at age 14. He worked in the garment industry, never went to college, but taught his two sons that "the most important thing in the world is a book."
Baltimore's mother, Gertrude, grew up in the household of a tailor from Ukraine. After her sons were born, she went to college, earned an advanced degree in psychology and at age 62 became a tenured professor at Sarah Lawrence College.
Although Baltimore's father was a religious Jew and his mother an atheist, they maintained a comfortable relationship with a mutual understanding of their differences.
Young David attended Sunday school at Conservative Temple Israel in Great Neck, N.Y., and celebrated his bar mitzvah there. Hand in hand with the family's intellectual interest went a humanitarian life view and an "inchoate socialism" that dictated concern for the underprivileged.
During his nine-year tenure as Caltech president, the 67-year old Baltimore translated many of his family's principles into practice, on top of raising the university's already elite level of scientific research and education. He showed a keen interest in the quality of student life through improved housing and a multimillion dollar student activities fund, and raised the profile and number of women on the faculty and in the student body.
On the public stage, shunned by more cloistered scientists, Baltimore spoke out freely on controversial issues, an attitude consistent with his family background.
Indeed, he almost lost out on his 1975 Nobel Prize, when, on the cusp of a breakthrough experiment, he shut down his laboratory to protest the U.S. Army's invasion of Cambodia. An early and insistent advocate for AIDS and stem cell research, Baltimore has not hesitated to criticize President Bush and his administration for endangering the nation's future scientific strength.
Will there be a future generation of great Jewish scientists whose home environment spurred them on to excellence? Perhaps, but Baltimore is not overly optimistic.
"In my generation, and the one before, the leading scientists have been extraordinarily and prominently Jewish," he said. They rose to the top because they made "the necessary sacrifices to develop the skills to become great scientists."
Encouraging and enforcing the needed sacrifices were the Jewish parents, "who exerted, and believed in exerting, the necessary pressure" on their sons and daughters. Today, that pressure is largely absent, not because the parents are less ambitious for their offspring, but "because they believe that their kids should define their own existence," Baltimore said.
Baltimore is married to Alice Huang, senior councilor for external relations at Caltech and a faculty associate in biology. The couple has one daughter, Teak, who is married and lives in New York.
As for now, the driving ethos of the old Jewish home, he observed, seems to have been taken over by Asian immigrants and their children.
Baltimore will remain at Caltech as professor of biology and focus on his scientific research and teaching.
In June, he received a $13.9 million grant by the Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Baltimore's proposal, "Engineering Immunity Against HIV and Other Dangerous Pathogens," will address the challenge of creating immunological methods to deal with chronic diseases.
We welcome your feedback.
Your information will not be shared or sold without your consent. Get all the details.
Terms of Service
JewishJournal.com has rules for its commenting community.Get all the details.
JewishJournal.com reserves the right to use your comment in our weekly print publication.