George Emil Palade: The Nobel Prize for a Romanian-American Scientific Trailblazer
Updated: Apr 29
Another medical hero in our series is the Romania-born American cell biologist George Emil Palade, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1974.
Palade was born in Iași, one of the oldest Romanian cities and an effervescent cultural and academic center, in 1912, as the second son of a university philosophy professor and a schoolteacher. He studied at the University of Bucharest’s Faculty of Medicine, where he showed a keen interest in the anatomy courses of Professor Franz Rainer and the biochemistry course of André Boivin. It was clear from early on that research was his call and not clinical medicine as he would later admit it: “I was not satisfied with the prospect of becoming a doctor in some medical office or hospital. I was interested in reaching the depths of the biological phenomena. I wanted to work in a field haunted by doubt, in a place where science is born. That’s why I chose what the Americans call ‘Basic Science’, ‘The Pillars Sustaining Medicine’.” No wonder that the subject of his doctoral dissertation was quite unexpected and unusual: dolphin’s uriniferous tubule.
In 1941, George Palade married Irina N. Malaxa, the heiress of one of the richest families in Romania. They had two children, Georgia Palade van Dusen, a philologist, and Philip Palade, a professor of neurophysiology in Galveston, Texas. During the war, between 1942 and 1945, he served in the Medical Corps of the Romanian Army and provided medical assistance to Romanian troops.
Encouraged by Professor Grigore Popa, one of his mentors, Palade crossed the Ocean in 1946 to continue his studies at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York (now Rockefeller University). He also conducted research in the biology laboratory of Robert Chambers at the University of New York. It was there he met Albert Claude, who was demonstrating his findings in electron microscopy, and they started to work together. Using the methods perfected by Claude, the two managed to split different cell structures. In 1953, Palade identified a type of particles later called ribosomes, in which the biosynthesis of proteins occurred. In his honor, they were later called Palade’s granules.
George Palade became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1952 and in 1958 started to teach at the Rockefeller Institute. Unlike many other remarkable Romanians who had had to flee the country after the imposition of the communist dictatorship in 1947, Palade didn’t see his expatriation as a misfortune. On the contrary, as he once said: “I did not see exile as a wound. I saw it as a challenge where you need to proof what you’re capable of.”
In 1961, Palade was already member of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. He received the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 1966. By now he had been recognized as one of the leading researchers in modern cell biology, a field in which he became even more active after 1970, the year he married Marilyn Gist Farquhar, also a cell biology researcher. In 1972 he was appointed head of the cell biology program at Yale University Medical School.
On November 10, 1974, George Palade was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine together with his fellow researchers, Albert Claude of the Free University of Brussels, and Christian de Duve of the Rockefeller University in New York, in recognition of “their discoveries on the structural and functional organization of the cell”. At the official ceremony two days later, Palade gave a speech on “Intracellular Aspects of the Process of Protein Secretion.”
Eager to use his recognition as a propaganda prop, communist Romania intensely cultivated the famous Nobel laureate. Palade would travel to his native country quite often after 1974. At Nicolae Ceaușescu’s own instigation, the authorities created the Institute of Cellular Biology and Pathology in Bucharest in recognition of his merits. In 1975 he was also made an honorary member of the Romanian Academy. Commenting of the benevolent attitude of the communists, Palade later observed: “They were clearly interested in cultivating a relationship because of the propagandistic gains.”
In 1986 George Palade received the prestigious National Medal of Science bestowed by President Ronald Reagan. In 1990 he became the Dean for Scientific Affairs at the University of California San Diego, where he created one the best cell biology programs in the world. Palade retired from UCSD in 2001 as Professor Emeritus of Medicine and died 7 years later at 96.
Reference books: Iftimovici, Radu, George Emil Palade, primul român laureat al Premiului Nobel (George Emil Palade: The First Romanian Awarded with a Nobel Prize), Bucharest, Viitorul Românesc, 1993; Avram, Sorin, Bădescu, Emanuel, Român, Cristian, and Vişinescu, Mihai (coord.), Ionescu, Florin (consultant), 100 Romanian Innovators, foreword by Basarab Nicolescu, translated by Emilia Bratu, Bucharest, Romanian Cultural Institute Press, 2017