U.S. Sen. Baldwin and the scientists carrying on her grandfather’s work

Congresswoman tours Morgridge Institute lab
U.S. Sen. Baldwin and the scientists carrying on her grandfather’s work
Photo by Doug Moe
Morgridge Center for Research investigators Jing Fan (left) and David Pagliarini talk with U.S. Sen. Baldwin on Oct. 9 at the Discovery Building on the UW–Madison campus.

This story starts almost exactly 70 years ago, with a newspaper headline: “U.W. to Open New Enzyme Laboratory.” And a secondary headline: “Unique Institute, One of World’s Few, to Begin Research Nov. 1.”

Those headlines and the accompanying story — about the debut of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Enzyme Institute — were published in the Wisconsin State Journal on Oct. 26, 1949.

The director of the new institute, David E. Green, a recent transplant from the east coast, spoke of the vast challenge ahead: “Since enzymes are a part of all living tissue, and since each has a specialized function, the task of finding out how they act and upon what is immense.”

Flash forward seven decades.

Last week, at the Morgridge Institute for Research in the Discovery Building on the UW-Madison campus, David Green’s granddaughter met the scientists who are continuing his early study of metabolism science, in hopes of breakthroughs that will help treat or reverse numerous diseases.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin was impressed. I was invited to spend part of the morning watching Baldwin, Green’s granddaughter, watch the scientists, and she was clearly moved by the experience.

After listening to a brief history of the evolution of the science and David Green’s significant contribution, Baldwin was asked by biochemistry professor Dave Pagliarini — the lead investigator for the Morgridge Institute’s current metabolism initiative — if she had any questions.

“I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” she said, smiling. “The whole history is fascinating. The names are very familiar.

“It brings back warm memories,” she continued. “He was constantly working on things on a pad or a chalkboard.”

Baldwin was raised by her grandparents, Green and his wife, Doris Green, who was a costume designer in the UW Theater Department. Before Tammy was a teen, her grandmother had taught her to sew, while her grandfather took her to his lab and on long walks for exercise during which he would muse about his discoveries and what might come next.

Plenty did. According to a National Academies Press biographical memoir of Green, he was highly respected in enzyme science before he was 30, having traveled to Cambridge University in England to pursue a doctorate in biochemistry. “At age 31,” the memoir notes, “he wrote a classic chapter that was published in volume 1 of the new treatise titled ‘Advances in Enzymology.'”

In 1946, while at Columbia University, he received the first Paul-Lewis Award in Enzyme Chemistry. Two years later, he was recruited to Madison to launch the Enzyme Institute.

According to the 1949 State Journal article, the institute was built with $350,000 from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), along with $100,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation for equipment.

Carl Gulbrandsen, former managing director of WARF and vice president of the Morgridge Center board, was on hand last week during Baldwin’s visit.

At one point, Pagliarini, the current lead investigator, told Baldwin, “We’re working directly on things discovered in your grandfather’s lab.”

He mentioned that his brother, Michael Pagliarini — a well-known chef and restaurant owner in Boston — observed that in food circles utilizing local ingredients is increasingly important.

Metabolism science is similar, Dave Pagliarini said. “This is locally-sourced science. The fact that we’re building upon discoveries made just down the road is very motivating and meaningful to us.”

David Green died in 1983. Pagliarini noted that in the last decades of the 20th century, researchers shifted their interest somewhat from mitochondria, the organelles within cells that contain enzymes.

But a 1999 article in Science magazine titled “Mitochondria Make a Comeback” stated that the science pioneered by Green and others was being reinvigorated.

“This lapse was only temporary,” the article noted. “Mitochondria are once again at the forefront of research — this time in fields as diverse as cell death, evolutionary biology, molecular medicine and even forensic science.”

Pagliarini’s lab, with an interdisciplinary team working to understand the underpinnings of mitochondrial dysfunction in human diseases, is running with a baton passed to them by the Enzyme Institute.

“Let’s see if they are doing any good science,” Pagliarini said, as he took Baldwin on a tour of the lab. She was introduced to the other scientists, including a young woman — a second-year graduate student — who was peering into a microscope when she let out a small yelp.

“Something’s happening!” the grad student exclaimed.

“For me?” Baldwin said and laughed.

The young scientist said she’d been at the microscope for hours, and it was just luck that something was happening now, which, of course, the senator knew. Baldwin was invited to have a look. She peered into the microscope, and back across 70 years.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.