The Day 'The Call' Came from Stockholm

Duke celebrates when the Nobel Prize comes to campus

Part of the Lefkowitz Wins Nobel Prize Series
Upon arriving in his office Wednesday, Robert Lefkowitz hugs his administrator of 35 years, Donna Addison. Photo by Jared Lazarus/Duke University Photography
Upon arriving in his office Wednesday, Robert Lefkowitz hugs his administrator of 35 years, Donna Addison. Photo by Jared Lazarus/Duke University Photography

On the morning his Nobel Prize in Chemistry was announced, Robert Lefkowitz didn't get "The Call" from Stockholm; he got an elbow from his wife. After taking out his earplugs, Lefkowitz blearily talked with several members of the Nobel committee -- he's not even sure how many -- thanked them and hung up.

The next call came from his old friend and former boss, Chancellor Emeritus for Health Affairs Ralph Snyderman, "saying words to the effect of 'I told you so.'"

Then Stockholm called back and Lefkowitz had to hang up on Snyderman. "I was worried they had changed their minds!"

By 9:30 a.m., blue and white balloons for Duke and green and gold balloons for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for which Lefkowitz is an investigator, festooned Lefkowitz's office and lab on the fourth floor of the Clinical and Research Laboratory. Administrative assistant Donna Addison was doing all she could to keep up with emails and calls seeking a few minutes of the new laureate's time. She started tracking them on a big sheet of paper taped to the wall.

press conference

Duke President Richard H. Brodhead and Robert Lefkowitz talk prior to Wednesday's press conference.  Below, Lefkowitz listens to introductory remarks, along with Chancellor Emeritus Dr. Ralph Snyderman, School of Nursing Dean Catherine Gilliss and School of Medicine Dean Dr. Nancy Andrews.

press conference

Lefkowitz strode briskly down the hall a few minutes later, with students, post-docs and colleagues cheering and applauding him the whole way. Photographers snapped pictures and video. About 20 of his colleagues jammed into his cramped, certificate-lined corner office to hear the tale of "The Call" and what it was like trying to get out the door in the morning.

Addison eventually shooed everyone out so Lefkowitz could make about 90 minutes of phone calls, the most important of which was to his granddaughter on her 17th birthday. He caught her on her way to school and she hadn't heard that he had won the prize.

The champagne and cake sat neglected until Lefkowitz finally emerged at 11:30 a.m. He moved quickly down the corridor with flashes popping to a conference room where his lab members and researchers had waited patiently to throw confetti and pop the bubbly. He made a few gracious remarks, thanking and congratulating everyone, especially Marc Caron, his first official post-doc at Duke and now a named professor who works just down the hall.

Some of the champagne spilled as everyone whipped out smartphones and cameras to take pictures of the celebration and have their snapshots taken with the laureate. Everyone, even reporters, wanted a moment with him. There were grad students he didn't know jumping in line.

"I loved it," Lefkowitz said shortly before his 1:30 p.m. press conference in the atrium of the School of Nursing. He arrived there at about 12:45 in the mistaken belief that the event was at 1, but that was just as well, since it gave him a chance to exchange hugs with colleagues and former students.

Duke President Richard Brodhead arrived and after a theatrical bow before the master, chatted with him for several minutes, with reporters taking notes on their conversation and snapping pictures. Snyderman rolled in shortly after, for a huge, back-slapping hug.

There was a long row of television cameras and numerous reporters at the news conference, which included opening remarks from Brodhead and Dr. Nancy Andrews, dean of the School of Medicine. More than 2,000 people watched a live webstream on the Internet. A recording is now available.

Later in the afternoon, several hundred colleagues and friends gathered for a reception at the Washington Duke Inn, capping what Andrews called "my most fun day in my nearly five years at Duke."

"When you win this award, we all feel like it's been given to all of us," said Brodhead, who was among several speakers who praised Lefkowitz  for his scientific accomplishments and dedication to teaching young scientists, which he described as "practicing your passion in such a way that other people discover their passion."

Dr. Victor J. Dzau, chancellor for health affairs and CEO of the Duke University Health System, called the news "one of the most significant events in the history of Duke Medicine." Writing from China, where he is traveling, Dzau told Lefkowitz "your entire career has been nothing short of spectacular." Dr. Mary Klotman, chair of the Department of Medicine, said "I am not Bob's boss; I am his cheerleader."

Other speakers described Lefkowitz's "contagious enthusiasm" and uncanny ability to bring out the best in others. "He's enriched many, many lives," said one collaborator, Dr. Howard Rockman. "He's enriched my life. I'm a better scientist because of Bob and I'm a better person because of Bob."

Lefkowitz took the podium to a sustained round of applause, describing how his day had unfolded and the "air of unreality" he was feeling since his wife first nudged him awake in the morning. "They say behind every successful man stands a surprised woman," he joked before expressing appreciation to his colleagues at Duke and beyond. "It's been a remarkable day."

Below, Robert Lefkowitz and Dr. Ralph Snyderman share a laugh prior to the news conference Wednesday.  Photo by Jared Lazarus/Duke University Photography