Choppin at Hughes Medical Institute Hired Good Scientists and Let Them Pursue Hunches and Serendipitous Insights

(p. A27) Purnell Choppin, whose research on how viruses multiply helped lay the foundation for today’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, died on July 3 [2021] at his home in Washington, one day shy of his 92nd birthday.

. . .

Dr. Choppin (pronounced show-PAN) focused on measles and influenza, but his research, and the methods he developed to conduct it, proved critical for later work on other viruses, including severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, the virus behind the Covid-19 pandemic, said David Baltimore, an emeritus professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology and a winner of the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

“The issue of how viruses infect cells was very much on his mind, and the mechanisms he worked out studying influenza were central to thinking about coronaviruses,” Dr. Baltimore said. “Thanks to his work and that of so many others, when the pandemic hit, we were able to formulate questions about the virus in quite precise terms.”

Dr. Choppin was equally well known as an administrator, first at Rockefeller and then at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which hired him in 1985 as its chief medical officer. He later ran the institute for 12 years, turning it from a modest-size research organization into a global research powerhouse.

. . .

With a calm, easygoing demeanor that disguised a fierce, visionary ambition, Dr. Choppin took an innovative approach to funding. Unlike other institutions, which provide grants for specific projects, he focused on identifying top researchers and then showering them with money and resources. Even better, he did not ask them to move to the institute, in Chevy Chase, Md. — they could stay where they were and let the Hughes largesse come to them.

. . .

While Dr. Choppin was sometimes criticized for making safe bets on established scientists who probably didn’t need his help, he made no apologies, and had the track record to prove the soundness of his approach: Dozens of Hughes researchers had gone on to become members of the National Academy of Sciences, and six won the Nobel Prize.

“We bet on people who look like they are going to be winners,” he told The Washington Post in 1988. “You look for originality. How they pick a problem and stick to it. Their instinct for the scientific jugular.”

For the full obituary, see:

Clay Risen. “Purnell Choppin, 91, Researcher Who Focused on Viruses.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, July 25, 2021): 27.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date July 23, 2021, and has the title “Purnell Choppin, 91, Dies; Researcher Laid Groundwork for Pandemic Fight.”)

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