Wald, George, 1906-1997

Alternative names
Birth 1906-11-18
Death 1997-04-12

Biographical notes:

George David Wald, 1906-1997, was a Nobel Prize-winning biologist, Higgins Professor of Biology at Harvard University, and a promoter ofprogressive political and social causes.

From the description of Papers of George Wald, 1927-1996. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 77065767

Educator, biochemist.

From the description of Reminiscences of George Wald : oral history, 1982. (Columbia University In the City of New York). WorldCat record id: 309741205

George Wald, 1906-1997, was the Higgins Professor of Biology at Harvard University from 1968 to 1977, a Nobel-Prize winning biologist, and a promoter of progressive political and social causes.

Born on November 18, 1906, in New York City to immigrant parents, Wald attended Brooklyn Technical High School and received a B.A. in Zoology from Washington Square College , New York University, in 1927. In 1931 he married his first wife, Frances Kingsley, with whom he had two children.

In 1932, Wald received his Ph.D. from Columbia University, having completed his vision research with Selig Hecht. Later that year, he received a National Research Council Fellowship. During his initial fellowship year (1932-1933), Wald worked first in the laboratory of Professor Otto Warburg in Berlin, where he identified the presence of vitamin A in the retina of the eye. He elaborated on that discovery in the laboratories of Paul Karrer in Zurich and Otto Meyerhof in Heidelberg . That year, spent with three Nobel Laureates, set the direction of Wald's future research.

Wald spent his second fellowship year in the Physiology Department at the University of Chicago . In 1934, he came to Harvard as a tutor in biochemical sciences . He became an associate professor in 1944, and a full professor in 1948. In 1958 Wald married his second wife, Ruth Hubbard, with whom he had two children.

Wald's association with Harvard was to last the rest of his life. His research on vision included the comparison of retinas in different organisms and the discovery of retinene, a fundamental chemical agent in vision. A prolific author, Wald published much of his research in scientific journals. His long career as a vision scientist and physiologist culminated in his discovery of how Vitamin A works in the retina, leading to the understanding of the chemical basis of vision .

In addition to his achievements as a research scientist, Wald was a popular lecturer. His introductory science course "Nat. Sci. 5" [Natural Sciences 5] was a favorite among Harvard undergraduates for many years. In 1966 Time featured Wald in a cover story as one of the "10 Best Teachers in America."

Throughout the 1950s, Wald received numerous awards, including the 1953 Lasker Basic Research Award from the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation and the Rumford Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1967 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. In 1968 he was named Higgins Professor of Biology. Wald retired from Harvard in 1977.

After winning the Nobel Prize, Wald began an intense period of political activity, which he continued to the end of his life, using his prestige, fame, and talent as a public speaker to promote a variety of progressive social and political causes. On March 4, 1969, he gave a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology entitled, "A Generation in Search of a Future". With this speech he attracted national attention as an academic critic of the Vietnam war and as a supporter of student protests. His speech was reprinted in The New Yorker. Among the papers, this speech is referred to as "The Speech." After its wide dissemination, he was sought often as a speaker and lecturer in his role as public spokesman for students, peace, and justice movements. That same year he won the Max Berg Award for "improving the quality of life." In 1972 he began lobbying for the presidential campaign of Senator George McGovern and traveled to China and to Vietnam where he visited with American POWs. He continued his vigorous support of the peace movement and in 1972 was jailed in Washington D.C. at an anti-Vietnam War protest.

Wald's great curiosity, which led to his success as a research scientist, also inspired him to explore his own consciousness and philosophy of life. These explorations led to a popular lecture entitled "Life and Mind," which he published in a variety of formats. Wald spoke on subjects such as "The Origin of Death", "Consciousness", and "Cosmology."

As an outspoken opponent of nuclear energy, Wald lobbied in the United States and internationally for nuclear arms reduction and non-reliance on nuclear power. He worked to move research on recombinant DNA away from Cambridge because of the possibility of contamination in the community. He was part of the Basso Tribunal on Human Rights, and served as an observer for its Tribunal on Guatemala and other countries. During the hostage crisis in 1980 he participated in the "Crimes Against Iran" conference in Tehran. Until his death at the age of 90 on April 12, 1997, George Wald remained an advocate for progressive social and political causes.

  • 1906: Born November 18, in New York City
  • 1927: Graduates from Washington Square College, New York University, with a B.A in Zoology
  • 1931: First marriage to Frances Kingsley
  • 1932: Obtains Ph.D. From Columbia University after graduate work with Selig Hecht National Research Council Fellowship
  • 1933: University of Chicago Physiology Department
  • 1934: Tutor in biochemical sciences at Harvard University
  • 1935: Receives the Eli Lilly Research Award
  • 1944: Appointed associate professor of biology at Harvard University
  • 1948: Appointed full professor of biology at Harvard University
  • 1950s: Publishes series in Scientific American; best known article, "Origin of Life"
  • 1953: Receives Lasker Award from the American Public Health Association
  • 1955: Receives Proctor Medal from the Association of Research in Ophthalmology
  • 1958: Second marriage to Ruth Hubbard First nominated for the Nobel Prize
  • 1959: Receives Rumford Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • 1963: Overseas Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge University
  • 1966: Cover of Time for 10 best teachers in America
  • 1967: Wins Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
  • 1968: Named Higgins Professor of Biology at Harvard Receives honorary doctorates from Clark University and Amherst College
  • 1969: March 4, gives A Generation in Search of a Future speech at MIT, beginning of intense period as a political activist. Wins Max Berg Award for improving the quality of human life
  • 1972: China People’s Republic of China Vietnam Socialist Republic of Vietnam Travels to China and Vietnam; visits with American POWs; Endorses Senator George McGovern for President; Jailed in Washington D.C. at an anti-Vietnam War protest
  • 1977: Retires from teaching at Harvard
  • 1979: "Life and Mind" lectures first published
  • 1980: Attends "Crime Against Iran" conference in Tehran
  • 1988: Member of the Russell Tribunal on Human Rights in Guatemala
  • 1997: Dies on April 12

From the guide to the Papers of George Wald, 1927-1996, (Harvard University Archives)


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Ark ID:


  • Poverty
  • Pacifists--Interviews
  • Biochemists--Interviews
  • Environmentalism
  • Human rights
  • Biologists
  • Civil rights
  • Rhodopsin--Research
  • Retinal (Visual pigment)--Research
  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Protest movements
  • Vitamin A--Research
  • Pacifism
  • Biology--Study and teaching (Higher)
  • Vision--Research


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  • Massachusetts--Cambridge (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)