Prof. David Julius, whose grandparents fled antisemitism in Czarist Russia, on Monday won the Nobel Medicine Prize along with fellow US scientist Ardem Patapoutian for discoveries on receptors for temperature and touch.
“The groundbreaking discoveries… by this year’s Nobel Prize laureates have allowed us to understand how heat, cold and mechanical force can initiate the nerve impulses that allow us to perceive and adapt to the world,” the Nobel jury said.
“In our daily lives we take these sensations for granted, but how are nerve impulses initiated so that temperature and pressure can be perceived? This question has been solved by this year’s Nobel Prize laureates.”
Julius, a professor at the University of California in San Francisco, and Patapoutian, a professor at Scripps Research in California, will share the Nobel Prize check for 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.1 million).
Julius was born in 1955 and grew up in Brighton Beach, which was then home to a large population of Russian Jewish emigres.
In an autobiographical piece published online last year in honor of his winning the prestigious 2020 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience, Julius described his family’s Jewish roots, saying he “grew up in a seaside Brooklyn neighborhood… that’s been a landing pad for Eastern European immigrants like my grandparents, who fled Czarist Russia and antisemitism in pursuit of a better life.”
A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, Julius has spent his career researching the way human senses like touch, pain, and heat function and has used capsaicin, the chemical in chili peppers that makes them burn, to explore how human nerve endings feel heat.
“These breakthrough discoveries launched intense research activities leading to a rapid increase in our understanding of how our nervous system senses heat, cold, and mechanical stimuli,” the Nobel Prize committee wrote in its announcement of the winners.
Last year’s prize went to three scientists who discovered the liver-ravaging hepatitis C virus, a breakthrough that led to cures for the deadly disease and tests to keep the scourge from spreading through blood banks.
While the 2020 award was handed out as the pandemic raged, this is the first time the entire selection process has taken place under the shadow of COVID-19. Nominations close each year at the end of January, and at that time last year the novel coronavirus was still largely confined to China.
The Nobel season continues on Tuesday with the award for physics and Wednesday with chemistry, followed by the prizes for literature on Thursday and peace on Friday before the economics prize winds things up on Monday, October 11.