‘My first standing ovation’: Humble MU professor cheered after winning Nobel Prize

This story originally published Oct.3, 2018.

Excitement rolled through the University of Missouri campus in Columbia on Wednesday as faculty and students celebrated a man they call a kind and modest genius.

From President Alexander Cartwright’s office to biology laboratories to the student union, receptions and high-fives were thrown in honor of George Smith, an MU curators’ distinguished professor emeritus of biological sciences, who is the first MU faculty member ever to win a Nobel Prize.

On Wednesday, Smith was one of three researchers to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry for, as Nobel officials put it, “harnessing the power of evolution” to produce enzymes and antibodies that have led to a new best-selling drug and biofuels.

“This is an absolutely stupendous recognition of one of our faculty members and his work that has been dedicated to finding answers to human health concerns,” said Christian Basi, university spokesman. “We are as proud as we can be for Dr. Smith and know that the entire campus community is celebrating today alongside of him.”

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George P. Smith, professor emeritus at the University of Missouri in Columbia, was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing a method known as phage display. After a press conference at Memorial Student Union recognizing his award, students and supporters swarmed Smith like a rock star after the event, trying to get selfies. Jill Toyoshiba jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

Smith shared the prize with two other researchers — Frances Arnold of the California Institute of Technology, who was awarded half of the 9-million-kronor ($1.01 million) prize, and Gregory Winter of the MRC molecular biology lab in Cambridge, England, who divided the other half with Smith. The winners were selected by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Smith learned about the prize in a pre-dawn phone call from Stockholm, and joked later that he could tell from the static on the line that the person with a Swedish accent was not one of his friends pulling a prank.

By late morning the entire university was abuzz with news of Smith’s prize. Students, faculty and staff that afternoon congratulated him with thunderous applause when he spoke about his work during an afternoon celebration in the North Memorial Student Union.

“My first standing ovation,” Smith joked as he took to the campus podium.

Smith studied bacteriophage, the virus that attacks bacteria, and in 1985 invented a method called phage display, which allows scientists to easily screen and harvest certain molecules. Today his method is used in thousands of laboratories worldwide as the basis for a wide range of experiments.

“Antibodies evolved using a method called phage display can combat autoimmune diseases and in some cases cure metastatic cancer,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences wrote in its announcement.

Smith downplayed his role in the more recent medical applications developed from his early research.

“Phage display started in 1984 when I was on sabbatical at Duke,” Smith said. “By the mid-1990s our contribution to the technology was over and many others were taking over the application. … I put forth the technology. I was not smart enough to anticipate what would come out of this science.”

Smith called science a web of ideas. “It absolutely depends on lines of work that’s gone on before I happen to be in the right place at the right time. This today is, I’m getting an honor that has been earned by a whole bunch of other people.”

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George P. Smith, professor emeritus at the University of Missouri in Columbia, was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing a method known as phage display. Before a press conference at Memorial Student Union recognizing the award, Smith pretended to prepare to be stuck by a needle as his wife Marjorie Sable put a MU College of Arts and Sciences pin on him. Jill Toyoshiba jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

Despite Smith’s humility, Cartwright was quick to praise Smith for his 40-year career and its outcome.

“Thank you for dedicating to this work and thank you for sharing that passion with Mizzou,” Cartwright said. “Our job here is to give people the opportunity to work on new ideas, and we don’t know where that will lead us. … It really is impossible to overstate the value of this work. When we look at what you did for science, and for Mizzou, it is remarkable.”

Earlier, Smith’s longtime colleague and friend Judy Wall, a curator’s distinguished professor emeritus in biochemistry, said she was thrilled to learn Smith had won the Nobel, not just for her friend but also for the university.

“When someone is acknowledged for their contribution to science, it doesn’t hurt at all to be able to say he is from the University of Missouri,” said Wall, who has known Smith for about 40 years.

Wall said that because of Smith’s earliest work, “a whole new field had developed in science.” Scientists in that field, she said, have been meeting annually now for more than a decade. “This has created hundreds, no, thousands of scientists who now have expertise with this system because of George’s initial work.” Over the years, she said, “George has given away all of the materials to any of those scientists and helped them over the telephone when they were having problems.”

Wall called Smith modest, adding that even with all his knowledge, he has not been one to publish a great many papers. “He does not publish unless he has something novel and critically important to say,” she said.

Smith, Wall said, “has been a stimulator of ideas. He challenges students to think and he is easily identified as a genius on this campus. He is the only person I ever heard of who when he got his thesis done it was published as a book. That’s amazing.”

Hedieh Attai, a fifth-year doctoral student who last year wrote a paper with Smith, would be among the first to agree.

“We always said that if anyone at Mizzou was going to win a Nobel Prize it would be him,” Attai said. “So it is exciting news for us, but it is not surprising that it is him. He is just brilliant. This is a great moment for our school.”

It’s also pretty special for Attai, too. “He trained me, so to learn from someone who now is a Nobel laureate is pretty amazing,” she said.

“This has been a long time coming,” said James Birchler a curators’ distinguished professor of biological sciences, who has known Smith for 20 years. “It draws attention to the fact that University of Missouri is a great university that students when they come here will be exposed to some of the very best. ”

Smith, 77, was born in Norwalk, Conn., in 1941, and grew up captivated by the natural world, especially animals. That, he said, continued into adulthood. In 1959 he went off to Haverford College, a liberal arts school in Haverford, Pa. His senior project there focused on molecular immunology. Smith graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1963, and for a year taught high school and worked as a lab technician.

Then in 1970 he earned a doctorate in bacteriology and immunology from Harvard University, and after a postdoctoral fellowship with the late Nobel winner Oliver Smithies at the University of Wisconsin, he joined the faculty at MU in 1975. He has since retired but maintains a lab at the university and teaches an honors class about world issues.

In 2015, Smith courted controversy when he proposed an honors tutorial called Perspective on Zionism, including the anti-Zionist text “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine,” according to the Columbia Daily Tribune. Jewish news websites attacked Smith, saying he was biased against Israel. The class was canceled for lack of enrollment. Smith is not Jewish but has said his wife is and his sons had bar mitzvahs. He has continued to speak out against Israeli actions in letters to newspapers, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Wednesday was the second time in as many years that an area university celebrated one of its own winning a Nobel Prize. Just two years ago a 1973 University of Kansas graduate, then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end a 50-year civil war in his country.