A great wave of innovations originates with Oberlin inventors.
by Doug McInnis ’70
Photos courtesy of Oberlin College Archives
Charles Martin Hall, 1885
For many alumni, Oberlin’s contributions to our world’s inventions begin and end with Charles Martin Hall, the 1885 Oberlin graduate whose discovery of a cheap method of producing aluminum from ore led to the production of lightweight materials for cars, aircraft, and spaceships.
Though Hall was among the first of Oberlin’s great innovators, he was far from the last. Since the late 1800s, the work of Oberlin’s scientist-inventors has revolutionized fields ranging from heart surgery to crop science. As you read this, NASA’s $2 billion Chandra X-ray Telescope is unraveling mysteries of the universe, its development overseen in large part by Martin Weisskopf ’64. Thousands of Americans undergo open-heart surgery every week, a procedure made possible by heart-lung machine inventor Frederick Cross ’43 and improved upon by Billy Cohn ’82, whose creation of a cardiac stabilizer enables surgeons to operate on a beating heart. And odds are that you live in one of the 50 million American homes wired for surround sound, the invention of Peter Scheiber ’56.
“We produce good scientists because Oberlin is a high-impact place,” says Norm Craig, emeritus professor of chemistry at Oberlin. “The College gets people thinking in relatively deep terms, and that leads to new ideas.”
Dozens of graduates have obtained patents for devices or processes that improve our lives; others have taken the inventions of others and used them in new ways, yielding remarkable results. As head of the World Health Organization’s smallpox initiative, D.A. Henderson ’50 crafted a sophisticated international strategy of mass vaccination. When the campaign began, smallpox was striking down 2 million people a year, even though a vaccine had been available since the 1790s. By 1979, Henderson’s plan had freed the world of this ancient killer. He won the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific award, and is now one of the nation’s leading bio-terrorism experts.
Often, Oberlin graduates have excelled in breakthrough research that opened vast new avenues of inquiry in fields such as medicine. Take 1981 Nobel Prize winner Roger Sperry ’35, the former Oberlin basketball captain whose theories revolutionized our understanding of the brain. “Sperry correctly proposed the theory of how the developing brain creates a network in which nerve cells communicate with one another,” says Dennison Smith, professor of neuroscience at Oberlin. “This theory essentially opened up the field of trying to create drugs to repair severed or damaged spinal cords.”
Another is Stanley Cohen MA ’45, who shared the 1986 Nobel Prize in Medicine for a breakthrough that showed how the human body regulates cell growth and how it controls the process that creates so many types of cells. His work is expected to lead to the development of new drugs to treat disease and enhance our understanding of tumors, dementia, and the way wounds heal. Ralph Hirschmann ’43, the former head of basic research at Merck & Company and now Makineni Professor of Bioorganic Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, stunned the scientific world in 1969 by chemically synthesizing the mammalian enzyme ribonuclease in solution.
“His feat broke a lot of ground in biotechnology,” says Manish Mehta, associate professor of chemistry at Oberlin. “The idea of chemically synthesizing an enzyme was radical in that day. It’s like saying today that we’re going to artificially synthesize a cell. Once that door was thrown open, people realized they could create other things chemically—that if you can chemically make a naturally occurring substance found in the body, you can create chemically altered versions of that substance. That holds the promise for the creation of designer drugs to treat human diseases.” For this, Hirschmann received the National Medal of Science in 2000.
The stories that follow detail the work of some of Oberlin’s innovators in fields ranging from particle physics and crop science to the Internet.
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