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90 years of creativity: Salk fetes Roger Guillemin


Early in his career, when Roger Guillemin was attempting to isolate a mystery substance suspected to control the function of the pituitary gland—and seeing more than a decade pass by—he must have wondered if his efforts would ever amount to anything. Would all the work prove worthwhile?

As scientists around the world know, it certainly did. Guillemin's findings brought to light a new class of substances important in regulating growth, development, reproduction and responses to stress, earning him a Nobel Prize in 1977. Today he is widely considered one of the founders of the field of neuroendocrinology. To mark his 90th birthday in January, the Salk Institute hosted a celebratory dinner and symposium that drew guests from as far away as Europe.

The festivities began on January 12 (the day after Guillemin's birthday) with a gathering of 175 friends and family in the specially decorated Salk foyer. Guillemin and his wife, Lucienne, were present, along with all six of their children and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. At his request, and underscoring the fact that any success is a team effort, the guest list included associates who had worked alongside him in his lab or neighboring labs over the years, as well as Salk administrators who had supported him during his interim presidency at the Institute from 2007 to 2009. Among the speakers was Catherine Rivier, professor emerita in the Clayton Foundation Laboratories for Peptide Biology and a driving force behind the event; Salk president William R. Brody; and Guillemin's daughter, Claire, who led the crowd in singing "Happy Birthday" to her father. A standing ovation greeted the honoree when he made his way to the podium.

The following day, over 200 people arrived on the Salk campus to take part in a symposium titled "Hypothalamic factors: A trove for novel therapeutic and diagnostic applications." The speakers discussed successful new therapies based on Guillemin's original discovery of hypothalamic peptides, many of which are the only currently available treatments for sex steroid–dependent diseases and those involving skeletal growth. The speakers also highlighted recent developments in peptide study that have led to unique diagnostic tools for specific cancers—a development not foreseen when Guillemin made his original discoveries.

Although Guillemin retired from the active pursuit of science in 1989, he has never stopped seeking out new worlds to explore, one of which is art. Using his computer, he now creates striking images that have been described as ranging from "molecular art structures [and] impressionistic landscapes to pure abstractions." One brilliantly colored example, "Grotte de Fingal #1aaa/blue skies," was featured on the cover of the event program. Additional framed works were hung in the Salk foyer for guests to enjoy. Guillemin has exhibited in galleries around the world and in 2012, took particular pleasure in mounting a joint exhibition with his son François, a sculptor, at the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library in La Jolla.

For the doctor, the scientist, the artist and the man, the future remains boundless. "In science," he has said, "there is such a thing as the law of gravity, the laws of DNA replication, and so on, whereas in art, there are no laws."