Inside Salk; Salk Insitute

A commanding presence

Roger Guillemin

Roger Guillemin, a Salk Professor and a Nobel laureate who pioneered the study of brain chemistry, was presented with France’s highest accolade–the rank of Commander in the Legion of Honour–during a ceremony this spring at the Salk Institute. In bestowing the medal created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 to recognize civilians and soldiers, neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux of the College de France and Pasteur Institute in Paris praised Guillemin, 91, before an assemblage of dozens of Guillemin’s family members–including his wife, Lucienne–and friends and colleagues.

“You have been, Roger Guillemin, one of these distinguished ‘soldiers of science’ that Bonaparte wished to recognize when he established the Legion of Honour,” Changeux said. “Through your scientific achievements and your many discoveries, you have played a key role in illustrating the excellence of scientific research, but most of all, as a French scientist working abroad, in fostering scientific collaboration and friendship between the United States and France.”

Colleagues attending the ceremony echoed the sentiment, describing Guillemin as a “national treasure” for both countries. Guillemin, a native of Dijon, France, earned his medical degree in 1949 from the University of Lyon. He joined Salk in 1970 and received the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work with hypothalamic hormones. His work introduced a new class of substances proven to be important for the regulation of growth, development, reproduction and responses to stress.

Changeux characterized Guillemin as “the founder of a new science called neuroendocrinology” and said his work led to major medicinal advances including the understanding of thyroid diseases, infertility and juvenile diabetes.

After the presentation, Guillemin expressed his gratitude in French before thanking his family and Salk colleagues, many of whom, including the late Wylie Vale, he had worked with for more than 45 years. He concluded his remarks, to a standing ovation, with “Let’s close this unique event in the French tradition with a glass of champagne.”