Interview with Edmond Fischer: pianist, microbe hunter, pilot and Napoleon expert

13. July 2010, 10:16 by Martin Fenner

Edmond Fischer shared the 1992 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Edwin Krebs "for their discoveries concerning reversible protein phosphorylation as a biological regulatory mechanism". I had the chance to talk to him in Lindau last week.
My name is Edmond Fischer, but everybody calls me Ed. I’m a retired professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, and I am a biochemist.

You said retired. Many laureates don’t seem to stop working.

Retired only means that you are not paid by the university, and that you don’t give lectures if you don’t want to. I have retired 20 years ago, and I am very happy that I have retired. Except that, before I retired I was less busy than I am now.

Is that because of the Nobel Prize?

The prize was given to me two years after I retired, 18 years ago. I was happy to retire, because I played the piano and I would have like to spend two hours a day on the piano. I simply can’t do that because I am too busy: I give talks, I come to meetings, I am on juries that give prizes, etc. These are very nice things, but they take time. But of course I also see my friends, and I enjoy life.

Other than playing the piano, are there other things you would have liked to do more after retirement?

I was born in Shanghai, but my two older brothers and me were sent to a big boarding school next to Geneva when I was 7. As a young man in Switzerland I did a lot of high mountain climbing and skiing. After I went to America, after spending a year at Caltech in Pasadena, I joined the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Washington. Nature there is quiet different from Europe, it’s all wilderness. You have huge trees, you have places where for thirty miles around there is not a road. It might be scary for some people, as it is not the European nature that is like a piece of furniture that has been polished for 800 or 1000 years. 

I have a house in Seattle, and I have another house on one of the San Juan Islands, an archipelago north of Seattle. They have Spanish names because they were discovered by Francisco de Eliza. We are on Lopez Island. We went there over the weekends, but It was a pain if you had to wait for the ferry on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Me and my wife, who died 4 years ago, therefore took flying lessons and bought a little Cessna, that was about 30 years ago. And we kept it for about 25 years, I loved it, I loved it to be on the plane with nothing underneath, I felt this sense of freedom and I’m totally at piece.

You are telling me you can be a scientist and also enjoy life?

I have enjoyed life very much. People say that if only I were younger. I don’t want to be younger. 

At one point in your life you almost became a musician and you started studying the piano.

Actually not really. I never had the virtuosity that you need to be a real pianist. Piano is like tennis, you have to be a Boris Becker at age 15 or 16, I never had the capabilities of becoming a pianist. I like music, but the idea of making a living out of music seemed funny to me. I loved to be at the conservatory, I was what you call in French class libre – free class, which was not on the professional track where you have to play the piano five hours a day. I couldn’t do that.

When you were a student, you wanted to become a microbiologist.

Since about age 14, I wanted to become a microbiologist. I had read the book Microbe Hunter by Paul de Kruif. I was very impressed by Semmelweis, and then I had a huge admiration for Louis Pasteur. At that time already I wanted to go into microbiology, and I remember well the first time I went to Paris, when I was age 14 or 15. The first thing I wanted to see was the Eiffel Tower, like everybody else. Then I went to see the tomb of Napoleon at the Invalides, because my mother was a Napoleaon fan. But after that I went to the Institute Pasteur to see the tomb of Pasteur, and that impressed me very much. So I decided to become a microbiologist. And the fact that my father died of tuberculosis. So as a kid, I wanted to find a cure for tuberculosis, and solve all the other problems in the world. 

And what made you change your mind?

I went to Fernand Chodat, the professor of microbiology. I said  "Professor, I want to go into microbiology, what would you advice that I do?" He said: "If you want to go into microbiology and be a researcher, you should start by studying chemistry. Today one uses much more test tubes than microscopes." And in fact, he was pretty right. So I joined the School of Chemistry and worked for a diploma in chemistry. But I always had an eye towards biology. For my thesis I worked on the purification of an enzyme. And then I wanted to go to America, because Biochemistry was not very advanced in Europe at that time. In Switzerland they had what is called Physiological Chemistry, not Biochemistry as such. I stayed at the University of Geneva as Privatdoeznt with Kurt Meyer, a very bright person, for 2-3 years, and then went to America. First to Caltech at Pasadena, and then one year after to the University of Washington. And never left. And never regretted it. I have been very happy over there. I have never been somebody who thinks that the grass is greener elsewhere. Essentially I was in Geneva, and I was in Seattle, and that is it.

And a lot of travelling and lecturing in between.

The nice thing about Seattle is that it is a little bit out of the way, not like Boston or New York where everybody visits you. Very soon after arriving at the University of Washington, I started working with my friend and colleague, mostly friend, Ed Krebs, with whom I of course later shared the Nobel Prize. He died just 6 months ago.

Today science communication is instant and spanning huge distances using the internet. How was this done in the 1950s and 1960s?

Totally different. At that time we relied a lot on what was called the Federation Meetings, which were held mostly in Atlantic City, on the other side, from Seattle we had to cross the whole continent. There were propeller planes that took a whole day. We, that is Ed and I, enjoyed that very much. We were seated next to each other. There were abstracts and papers, we would read every one of them on the way.

At that time meetings were even more important than journal articles?

I can honestly tell you that when I left Switzerland I would have read essentially every paper that was published in the field of biochemistry. There was Nature, but that was a very poor journal at that time, the Journal of Biological Chemistry was a small format, published once a month, with only 5 or 6 people on the editorial board. They read every paper that was submitted to the journal. And then there was an explosion of papers, an explosion of work, and now you can’t read 1% of what is published. 

How was working in American different from Switzerland?

I think a big difference between work I was doing in Switzerland at the time, and work I encountered when I arrived in America is that in Switzerland we had very little money for research. I don’t think there was a National Science Foundation. After the war Kurt Meyer got a huge grant from the Stiftung auf dem Gebiete der Chemie, 50.000 Francs. For the whole department. That was considered a lot of money. Because you didn’t have a whole lot of money, you had to work on things that were cheap. We didn’t work on rabbits, because we would have to buy them. We worked on potatoes, and on starch. We thought a lot before running an experiment, because we had to buy the reagents. Before you decided to do an experiment, you really talked about it. And many times we decided that after all it was not worthwhile. 

When I arrived in America, and that was really the beginning of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), I got research grants. You wanted to do an experiment, you just bought the reagents and you did it. And after a while you said that this was a dumb experiment, and that you shouldn’t have done it.

So you say that there are also advantages of having a tight budget.

Yes there is in fact. Look at the work that was done at the Institut Pasteur, in what I would call the glorious years, the 1950s, by people like François Jacob and Jacques Monod (they shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1965). They worked so cramped, so tight together, and that is where the best ideas came about. When you have a big institute with people on different floors, you loose this closeness, you loose this collaboration. And I think this is an important factor. And you focus more on a problem. My colleague Ed Krebs and I never had big groups. The most I ever had was maybe 10-11 people, including two on sabbatical leave (visiting professors), and then I had maybe 4 postdoctoral fellows, 3 technicians and a couple of students. Nowadays some groups have 30-35 people, e.g. at the Max Planck Institutes or other places, I couldn’t have lived with that. And I don’t think they know what the hell is going on. 

Applicants for postdoctoral positions were usually very bright people and were recommended by very bright people, but the most important factor for me was that they integrated well in the group. It’s like a family, I couldn’t have standed a postdoc if he was bitching at everybody. It has always been important for me that the working group is like a little family. Ed Krebs and I were just next to one another, and the people mixed completely. When Ed and I started our work, we started just the two of us, side by side at the bench, much more as two friends than as two colleagues. We worked so close to each other that I would pipet something and there was the telephone for me, and he would pick the pipet and continue. These were for us very exciting years, a very close collaboration.
Of course, as the problems began to grow, he had postdoctoral fellows and students, towards the end we had a total of maybe 20 people. 

Every Tuesday morning our two groups  would have our research conference. We would bring some doughnuts and have some coffee, and one of his or my students reported what they were doing in the lab. Once a year in October, we had a a meeting up in the foothills of the mountains, where the University of Washington had a forestry camp. We went there for two days, and the students prepared the program completely.

We talked about science in the morning, in the afternoon we had games. The students didn’t have to spend a lot of time telling us what they were doing, we knew that by those research conferences. They discussed what they proposed to do in the coming year. So for two days we discussed the future of our research, what were the big problems that would have to be solved during that year, and how best to do it. And we enjoyed this very very much. The retreat was always Thursday and Friday. In 1992 we learned we had won the Nobel Prize on the Tuesday before our retreat. The president of our University told us that he had already arranged a big thing for Thursday afternoon with journalists, etc. We said that we had our retreat and he would have to change it. We were not going to miss our retreat and we went up into the mountains. And then of course the kids had a special party for us, and we had T-shirts that said “phosphorylation is not an artefact”.

You have been at Lindau several times since 1993. What is the part you like the most?

1993 was the first time I came to Lindau and I loved it. I liked it before I even came here. In the 1980s I was travelling on TWA from America to Europe. Behind me was George Wald, he got the Nobel Prize for his studies on vision. I knew him, so we started talking. 

“George, what are you doing in Europe?” “Oh, I’m going to a place called Lindau.” I said “What’s that?”. “It’s an island at the Eastern end of Lake Constance.” “So why do you go there?” “It is a place were we Nobel laureates give lectures to students.” And I said “That is a fantastic idea. What an incredible opportunity for students to be able to meet Nobel laureates in a relaxed and informal way. And then, what an incredible opportunity it is for laureates to meet students.” 

And I was thinking about that this was a wonderful idea. In 1992 at the award ceremony Count Lennert and Countess Sonja asked me to please come to Lindau the next year. I said “Of course, I would be delighted to." As I said my mother was born in France, she had told me a lot about Napoleon and I knew all about Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte who was appointed Marshal of France by Napoleon and later became king of Sweden. So when I found myself in front of two Bernadottes, real descendants, I started talking. Sonja looked at me speechless, she couldn’t understand a word of what I was saying. I could see in her eyes that she thought I was a kind of crazy nut, and regretting she had invited me to Lindau. And then we went there the following year and it was wonderful, a sort of a fairy tale to be here. 

The young researchers come here only once, and they seem very nervous. Is there advice you can give them?

You are right, that was a problem, but I think it is lessening up. I once wrote a letter about this to the curatorium. In America, if we had that kind of meeting, it would start in a park. We would have beer and hot dogs for students, and we wouldn’t be separated. There would be a baseball game, where the students would beat the hell out of us, but it would break the ice. What I have found is that for the first time they are relaxed is when they go on the boat trip to Mainau. 

I have told the curatorium to tell the students to come to us any time. We are here for them. When we go to Mainau, the Nobel laureates thank the Bernadottes, and twice I have given the little talk at that occasion. And once I said “it should not be called meeting of Nobel laureates, it should be called meeting of students." They are the principle component of the meeting. We are coming just for that, to introduce students to make connections, speak among them, trust one another and speak the same language, the language of science. 

It is a big difference between Europe and America. Nobody in my department would call me Dr. Fischer, they call me Ed, everybody, the secretaries, the students, you don’t have this formality of doctor or professor. In America you meet somebody you immediately use the first name. I think that now more and more in the labs this sort of formality breaks down in Europe, and it should be encouraged by the heads of the groups. I remember that when I was working on my PhD in Geneva, a lot of PhD students were working for the industry. They were not allowed to speak to us, even if we worked next to them, they were not allowed to say what they were doing. The research was about commercial things and they were very secretive. This would not be possible, would not be allowed in America.

Further interview with a Nobel Laureate at Lindau by Alexander Bastidas: