Nobel Winner Furchgott Was Curious About What Makes Things Tick

After he won the Nobel Prize in 1998, Robert F. Furchgott ’37 enjoyed the celebration, but he was itching to get back to the science.

“Too many people calling in,” he described the situation to a reporter. “I haven’t had a chance to do anything in the lab but pose for photographers.”

He told The New York Times that he was “kind of surprised” by the award. “My work is sort of old-fashioned pharmacology. Is it the highlight of my career? I guess in a way, though you don’t do research to win prizes. You do it because you’re curious about what makes things tick.”

Furchgott, who died May 19 at age 92, might have seen his work as old-fashioned, but the results, along with the work of two other researchers who shared the prize, were very much on the scientific, cultural and commercial cutting edge. The word “Viagra” jumped out of the Nobel headlines because their discoveries figured in the development of the relatively new impotence drug. But what Furchgott and his colleagues found also had broad implications for treating heart disease, regulating blood pressure, fighting infections and preventing formation of blood clots, just for starters.

A distinguished professor of pharmacology at the State University of New York Science Center, Furchgott was responsible for the significant breakthrough that advanced scientists’ understanding of dilation and constriction in normal and abnormal blood vessels, first reported in 1980 and refined through the following decade.

He shared the prize in the physiology or medicine category for the discovery of how the natural production of nitric oxide works in the body. The scientists found out that nitric oxide, which is related to nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”) and is a common air pollutant, is found throughout the bodies of animals, including humans. This was, in the Nobel award committee’s words, “the first discovery that a gas can act as a signal molecule in the organism.” The research led to the discovery that the inner linings of arteries make less nitric oxide in the presence of heart disease. The improved understanding of nitric oxide’s role pointed a way to develop better drugs to treat heart disease.

Scientists also now understand that nitric oxide can control muscle contractions in the arteries, which can reduce blood pressure. Further concentration on the impact of the body’s production of nitric oxide may have a bearing on diagnosis of ailments such as asthma and colitis. Nitric oxide also begins the process of widening of blood vessels in the penis to produce erections. Furchgott was not involved directly in this aspect of the application of the research.

Furchgott, a native of Charleston, S.C., almost didn’t get to attend Carolina. His brother Art graduated from Carolina in 1933 in mechanical engineering. But in the Depression years there wasn’t enough money to then send the younger Furchgott to college out of state, and he spent his freshman year at South Carolina. But then the family moved to Goldsboro, enabling him to come to Chapel Hill and pursue the interest in chemistry he’d had since high school.

Furchgott, who received an honorary doctor of science degree from UNC in 1989, said at the time he won the Nobel that it would be hard to predict the most significant outcome of the research, because so much was left to learn and because nitric oxide impacts the body in so many ways. “Perhaps better drugs for hypertension and heart disease,” he said, “and possible use in memory systems in the brain – but that’s outside my field.”

He received his doctorate in biochemistry at Northwestern University in 1940. He chaired the pharmacology department at Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn for 26 years, starting in 1956. He retired in 1982 but continued to teach. In 1988, he was named distinguished professor at the SUNY Health Science Center, making him one of just 50 scientists in the 64-campus system to hold the continuing honorary appointment. He also had served as president of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.

Related material is available online:

  • A First – A Nobel for One of Us“From the Hill” news report from the November/December 1998 issue of the Carolina Alumni Review, available online to GAA members.

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