This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Lasker Awards. Mary Lasker’s establishment of two separate awards reflects her philosophy of medical research: major advances come from both the bench and the bedside. In creating the Lasker Awards, Mary Lasker conceived and designed the Winged Victory statuette to symbolize a body of creative biomedical research that produces “victory over disability, disease, and death.”
60 years of winged victories for biomedical research
What sets the Lasker Awards apart from other prestigious prizes, such as the Nobel Prize, is the Lasker’s duality of recognition. Each year, one award — the Basic Award — honors fundamental discoveries that open new fields of biology, and a separate award — the Clinical Award — honors pioneering achievements that change the practice of clinical medicine.
Mary Lasker’s establishment of two separate awards 60 years ago reflected her philosophy of medical research: major advances come from both the bench and the bedside. The first Lasker Awards, presented in 1946, got off to an auspicious start, setting a high standard for creativity and excellence that has persisted to this day. The first Basic Award was given to Carl Cori for the discovery of the enzymes that interconvert glucose to glycogen to glucose. One year later he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine together with his talented biochemist wife, Gerty Cori. Contemporary historians of science recognize Carl Cori as one of the giants of 20th century biochemistry. The Cori laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis became the Mecca for aspiring young biochemists and enzymologists in the 1940s and 1950s. Six of the scientists who trained with the Carl and Gerty Cori went on to win Nobel Prizes — Arthur Kornberg and Severo Ochoa (in 1959), Luis LeLoir (1970), Earl Sutherland (1971), Christian de Duve (1974), and Edwin Krebs (1992). Surprisingly, only two of these six Nobelists, Sutherland and Krebs, received Lasker Awards. Lasker Juries in the past were obviously not as prescient as those today!
Two Lasker Clinical Awards were given in 1946. Both have stood the test of time. One clinical award went for the discovery of the Rh factor responsible for hemolytic disease of the newborn and was given to Karl Landsteiner and Philip Levine of Rockefeller University and Alexander S. Weiner from the Office of Chief Medical Examiner here in New York City. The second clinical award was given for the treatment of syphilis with penicillin, a therapy pioneered by John Mahoney of the US Marine Hospital in Staten Island.
Since 1946, 131 individuals have received Lasker Basic Awards and 123 have received Lasker Clinical Awards. As a part of their award, each Lasker winner receives a statuette of the famous ancient Greek sculpture Winged Victory on which is inscribed the citation for the research that led to the award. A close look at these citations over the last 60 years provides an unmatched and rich source of historical material that chronicles the progress and advances in biomedical research.
The 60th anniversary of the Lasker Awards provides a timely context to comment on the Winged Victory sculpture. The original Winged Victory of Samothrace was created by the Greeks in the period between 190–180 BC and is considered one of the Louvre’s three greatest masterpieces, together with Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo sculpture. Winged Victory, which is eight feet tall, portrays the Greek Goddess of Victory standing on the prow of a ship with her wings spread and her clinging garments rippling in the wind as she descends from the sky to celebrate the naval triumph of the fleet. In creating the Lasker Awards, Mary Lasker conceived and designed the Winged Victory statuette, which is one foot tall, to symbolize a body of creative biomedical research that produces “victory over disability, disease, and death.”
From fragments of marble to a masterpiece
Winged Victory was discovered in 1863 on the Aegean island of Samothrace by an amateur French archeologist in a mutilated and shattered state consisting of more than 200 fragments of marble. Within one year after being unearthed, the fragments were shipped to the Louvre, where they were reassembled over a 20-year period. The original fragments did not include the wings and the ship pedestal, which were discovered in later excavations. The head and the arms have never been found. The right hand was found in 1950.
The first restoration of Winged Victory was completed in three years, and the sculpture was first displayed in 1866, without wings and without the ship pedestal. Because of its fragmented condition, it was originally placed in a crowded, poorly lit back room of the Louvre where it stood “buried” among many more imposing statues. Once the wings and ship pedestal were restored, the curators of the Louvre decided that Winged Victory should be moved to a more prominent site so that its monumentality could be appreciated by the viewing public.
In 1883, Winged Victory was installed under a sky-lit cupola on the upper landing of the museum’s Grand Stairway, which at that time was the sole entrance into the Louvre. This new placement ensured that Winged Victory would be seen by every visitor to the Louvre. But, despite this new premier location, Winged Victory was not centered directly under the cupola, and it shared the spotlight with other classical sculptures that lined the stairwell of the Grand Stairway. It was also surrounded by decorative images on the walls and ceiling of the upper landing.
It was not until 1932 that masterpiece status was conferred on Winged Victory when a new generation of curators at the Louvre singled it out for solo display in the Grand Stairway. The stairwell was cleared of all statues, all wall and ceiling displays were removed, and Winged Victory was repositioned in the center of the cupola. On entering the Louvre, all visitors now encountered only one piece of art—Winged Victory in all its grandeur.
The Louvre’s 1932 installation of Winged Victory at the top of the Grand Stairway was so magnificent and monumental that the setting was soon copied by the Metropolitan Museum here in New York. During World War II, the Metropolitan installed a replica of Winged Victory at the top of its Grand Stairway.
The 50-year history of how Winged Victory advanced in the hierarchy of the Louvre from a collection of marble fragments to a reassembled statue of relative obscurity to its preeminent position at the top of the Grand Stairway raises the fundamental questions of what makes certain art great art and how does a piece of art become singled out and elevated to the status of masterpiece.
The same questions can be asked of scientific research. What makes certain science great science? How does a fragmentary piece of scientific research (like the fragments of Winged Victory) evolve over many years into a compelling scientific story (like the reassembled Winged Victory) so that it gets singled out by Lasker Jurors (like Louvre curators) to become a scientific masterpiece (like achieving solo presentation in the Grand Stairway)?
There is no better way to ponder these questions than to learn about the personal stories behind the scientific masterpieces created by this year’s Lasker Basic and Clinical awardees. As you’ll hear in a moment, each of our awardees has a great story to tell — as tortuous and exciting as the 50-year story behind Winged Victory’s rise from shattered fragments to reassembled masterpiece.
The Lasker Basic Award will now be presented by Thomas Stossel, after which I will present the Lasker Clinical Award. Tom is a member of the Lasker Jury and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He is a hematologist and biochemist who discovered the key proteins that determine how our white blood cells and macrophages move around the body to attack foreign bacteria. Tom is well known for his unusual expository skills, a trait that runs in the Stossel family. Tom’s younger brother is John Stossel, who co-anchors ABC’s 20/20. Tom has recently appeared with John on several 20/20 programs, expatiating on topics ranging from back pain to drug pricing to siblings.
Tom is a very creative guy, if not a bit mischievous. When he gives a lecture, he routinely begins with a slide entitled “T. Stossel — Disclosures.” The first disclosure is financial, which lists his board memberships, consultancies, etc. The second disclosure is criminal, which says “Jailed for Brawling, Mackinac Island, MI, 1964; Outcome — Escaped.” Now that Tom is footloose and fancy-free, he is here to enlighten us on the discoveries of Till and McCulloch.