Oral history interview with Lubert Stryer

Oral history interview with Lubert Stryer

  • 2008-Dec-03 – 2008-Dec-04
Portrait of Lubert Stryer
Lubert Stryer

Lubert Stryer was born in Tientsin (now Tianjin), China. He and his family lived in Shanghai until he was about ten. Lubert’s father had come to China from Germany, his mother from Russia, in order to escape the turmoil in Europe, but the Japanese invaded and interned Shanghai’s British, Canadian, and American citizens. Somehow the Stryers escaped notice and, after the war, obtained visas for the United States, moving to Forest Hills, New York. Lubert had always loved school, and he found his high school to be of excellent quality. As a youngster he loved baseball and chemistry; he founded his own newspaper, The Daily Bugle, and he became interested in photography.

Stryer was fascinated by history when he was in high school, and he planned to become a lawyer, but the head of the science department asked him to do some research on bioluminescent bacteria, and Lubert was “hooked.” He applied to Harvard University and the University of Chicago for college, knowing that he would need a good scholarship; he accepted the offer from Chicago, matriculating at sixteen. With medical school as his goal and majoring in physiology, he worked at Argonne National Laboratories in the summers, becoming interested in photodynamic action. Here began his lifelong passion, “light and life.” The intellectual experience in college was intense, and friendships abounded. It was also an exciting time of exploding knowledge in science, with DNA being discovered, oscilloscopes replacing smoke drums. Always eager for the next experience or challenge, Lubert finished college in three years, accepted an offer from Harvard, and entered medical school at the age of nineteen.

At Harvard Lubert again found himself among the brightest scientific minds of his generation; he called upon his friendships to establish a relationship with Elkan Blout, who remained his mentor throughout his school years. Blout directed Lubert to Children’s Cancer Research Foundation, where he worked on polypeptides conformation and learned spectroscopy. When he was in his last year of medical school, Stryer knew that he did not want to practice medicine and forwent internship for an immediate postdoctoral fellowship. In Carolyn Cohen’s laboratory, he learned x-ray diffraction, drank much coffee, and engaged in many wide-ranging discussions with labmates. During this year he also was tutored in physics and mathematics by Edward Purcell and began learning computing; having married his Chicagoan fiancée, Andrea, when he was twenty, for which he needed his parents’ consent, he also fathered his first child. At that point Blout arranged for Stryer to study with Sir John Kendrew at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, England. Again he worked among and with Nobel Prize-winning scientists: Kendrew, Crick, Watson, Perutz, Sanger.

After about a year Arthur Kornberg asked Kendrew for recommendations, and Stryer’s next stop was Stanford. Teaching protein structure and function, he found wonderful science and scientists at Stanford too. Stryer believes that he flourished during the “golden age” of science, which began to change after the Vietnam War.

After a few years at Stanford Lubert, now an associate professor, wanted to change his research area to visual excitation, so when Yale offered him a full professorship and all the lab space he wanted, he and his wife and now two sons moved east. Using the notes he developed for his class in biochemistry Stryer wrote his now-canonical textbook. He feels that although he did not publish so much while at Yale his work there set the stage for his later discoveries in amplification in vision.

Stanford offered him chairmanship of the new department of structural biology, and back they all went to California. There Stryer wrote the next edition of his textbook. He gave up his chairmanship after a couple of years because he found it “not fun.” This relinquishment allowed him to become more proficient on (very early) computers, even writing his own programs. Most importantly, he enjoyed a “magic moment” when he discovered that a single photon can lead to the activation of five-hundred molecules of transducin.

As Stryer has gradually disentangled himself from his university work his position in the scientific community has evolved. He sees himself creating new ways to do interesting things outside of the lab. He became an advisor for the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences, helping to promote new young scientists. He has been involved in several companies in private industry, a result of his interest in olfaction and vision; he has established and led BIO2010 to study the future of undergraduate biology education, and helped implement those ideas at Stanford; he remains interested in human evolution, continuing several projects, studying just for the sake of learning.

Lubert Stryer’s list of honors, culminating in the National Medal of Science, is extensive and impressive. His own description of his science, “light and life,” best describes Stryer himself.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 82 pages
  • 04:38:00
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Rights holder
  • Science History Institute
Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute
Digitization funder
  • Audio synchronization made possible through the generous funding of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

About the Interviewer

David J. Caruso earned a BA in the history of science, medicine, and technology from Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and a PhD in science and technology studies from Cornell University in 2008. Caruso is the director of the Center for Oral History at the Science History Institute, president of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and editor for the Oral History Review. In addition to overseeing all oral history research at the Science History Institute, he also holds an annual training institute that focuses on conducting interviews with scientists and engineers, he consults on various oral history projects, like at the San Diego Technology Archives, and is adjunct faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching courses on the history of military medicine and technology and on oral history.  His current research interests are the discipline formation of biomedical science in 20th-century America and the organizational structures that have contributed to such formation.

Physical location

Oral history number 0631

Related Items

Interviewee biographical information

  • March 02, 1938
  • Tientsin, China


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1957 University of Chicago BS Physiology
1961 Harvard University MD Medicine

Professional Experience

Harvard University

  • 1961 to 1962 Research Fellow, Physics

MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

  • 1962 to 1963 Visiting Investigator

Stanford University. School of Medicine

  • 1963 to 1969 Assistant and Associate Professor, Biochemistry
  • 1976 to 1979 Chair, Department of Structural Biology
  • 1976 to 2004 Winzer Professor of Cell Biology
  • 2004 to 2010 Winzer Professor of Cell Biology, Emeritus

Yale University

  • 1969 to 1976 Professor, Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry

Affymax Research Institute

  • 1989 to 1990 President and Scientific Director

Affymetrix, Inc.

  • 1993 to 2010 Chairman, Scientific Advisory Board

Senomyx, Inc.

  • 1996 to 2001 Chairman and Chief Scientific Officer
  • 2001 to 2008 Chairman, Scientific Advisory Board


Year(s) Award
1961 to 1964 Helen Hay Whitney Postdoctoral Fellowship
1970 American Chemical Society Award in Biological Chemistry (Eli Lilly Award)
1975 Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1984 Member of the National Academy of Sciences
1987 National Lecturer for the Biophysical Society
1992 American Association for the Advancement of Science Newcomb Cleveland Prize
1992 Honorary Doctor of Science degree, University of Chicago
1993 Distinguished Inventors Award, Intellectual Property Owners' Association
2002 Molecular Bioanalytics Award, German Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
2006 European Inventor of the Year Award
2006 Member of the American Philosophical Society
2006 National Medal of Science

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The published version of the transcript may diverge from the interview audio due to edits to the transcript made by staff of the Center for Oral History, often at the request of the interviewee, during the transcript review process.

Complete Interview Audio File Web-quality download

3 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads