We are saddened to hear of the passing of Gerald M. Edelman, MD, PhD, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1972 for the breakthrough discovery of the molecular structure of immune system antibodies, a fundamental contribution to biomedical science. Edelman went on to make major contributions to molecular and cellular biology, neurobiology and theoretical biology as well. His pioneering work on consciousness and the brain was fundamental and continues to be productive.
Our heartfelt condolences go to Gerald’s wife Maxine, his children David, Eric and Judith, and his many friends, colleagues and those who were taught and inspired by his life and work.
Biologists, immunologists, and medical scientists everywhere will be aware of Edelman’s seminal discovery of the structure of antibody molecules, crucial to an adaptive immune system that maintains a dynamic defense of physiological integrity over the lifetime.
In a broader sense, anyone who benefits from our evolving knowledge of the body’s immune systems owes a debt of gratitude to Gerald Edelman and his many scientific colleagues in the field of medical immunology. Over decades, that fundamental biomedical understanding has helped to increase the lifespan and well-being of most human beings on earth. It will continue to form a distinct link in the web of our expanding knowledge of medicine and biology.
Gerald Edelman interpreted his Nobel Prize-winning discovery in immunology in broader biological terms, as a specific case of selectionist adaptation — analogous to Darwinian evolution, which also involves replication, variation and selection in a repertoire of basic signaling elements. From this perspective Edelman evolved a broad biological theory that is sometimes called Neural Darwinism, which applies to many different levels of biological activity. It is the depth of this insight, and the breadth of its application throughout psychology, sociology, biology and computational philosophy that makes Edelman’s thought so fundamental for the psycho-bio-informational sciences. The fundamental nature of Edelman’s Neural Darwinism is still not adequately understood in its very large domain of application, a failure that continues to lead to many basic misunderstandings in fields like biology, computational theory and philosophy of science. Among other important implications, Neural Darwinism suggests a fundamentally different and non-reductionist understanding of higher-level organized systems, including but not limited to biological organisms. Edelman had a deep understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology, without trivializing their relationships. Organisms cannot be understood without knowing their evolutionary and developmental life paths, which makes even genetically identical twins different from each other.
Because science is also an evolving discipline, Gerald Edelman approached frontier psycho-neuro-biology as a romantic philosopher might. That is, he saw centers of scientific excellence in naturalistic terms, as flourishing gardens in which individual scientists, teams, alliances and differentiation would self-organize into new and unpredictable pathways. His founding of the independently-funded Neurosciences Institute (starting at Rockefeller University and re-established in La Jolla, California) reflected Edelman’s distinctive grasp of scientific creativity; he saw The Neurosciences Institute as a Renaissance monastery, even as Edelman himself was a Renaissance man. There was no contradiction in his mind between scientific monks and nuns doing molecular biology in one laboratory, studying squid behavior in another, and inviting world class musicians to perform in the acoustically ideal NSI concert hall every few weeks. The NSI luncheons allowed Fellows to show their lab findings, robot simulations and theoretical insights to their colleagues for free debate, learning, and reflection. In Edelman’s Neurosciences Institute one always had a sense of intellectual freedom, but without self-indulgence. We were there to work and learn. It also reflected his own life growth in a golden age of intellectual ferment in New York City, where he came of age, initially as a world-class violin player and then medical clinician. Edelman never lost the Renaissance flavor of his intense musical and clinical experiences. Nor did he lose the Jewish habit of telling folksy jokes to cope with life’s dilemmas. Decades later Edelman entertained academic audiences in Paris with his characteristic jokes to introduce scientific lectures in fluent French. Edelman was always passionate, opinionated, open-minded, and uncompromisingly honest.
Edelman’s romantic conception of a scientific monastery was rooted in his own experience at Rockefeller University in New York City and similar institutions. It was an environment where hardy individuals could thrive, but not without constant pressures to adapt. The Neurosciences as an integrated discipline emerged in the 1970s from the ferment of interaction between previously separate disciplines of neurology, neuroanatomy, molecular biology, and the like. The Neurosciences Institute emerged along with the Society for Neurosciences at that time. As Director of the NSI with his lifelong colleagues Joseph Gally and Einar Gall, Edelman directed the Institute while also running his first-rate molecular biology laboratory at the Scripps Research Institute across the street, a characteristically bravura performance in his own Renaissance style.
Gerald M. Edelman had a great love for the classics in music and philosophy, and took some recent book titles, like Bright Air, Brilliant Fire from the pre-Socratics. He was a model of the public intellectual, a man whose mind acknowledged no artificial walls or boundaries. He might therefore have appreciated the classic “hail and farewell” salutation of the Roman poet Catullus:
atque in perpetuum, frater
ave atque vale
For the Society for Mind Brain Sciences,
Bernard J Baars