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Profile: Peter Doherty

With opinions on nearly everything under the sun, Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty is an equal opportunity offender. But he has always saved his best ideas for science.

It's true that Peter Doherty won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work discovering how killer T-cells recognize cells infected with a virus.

But talk to him for a couple of hours and chances are you won't hear a word about that.

Instead, Doherty will probably hold forth engagingly on any number of topics—from abortion and the beauty of Ernest Hemingway's spare prose to Chinese folk music and the charms of the actress Marlo Thomas. Most likely, he'll also manage to insult a few different religious, professional and ethnic groups, reserving his most vitriolic statements for anyone he considers a hypocrite.

“Peter, he questions everything. I think he does it across the whole of his life, from society to religion and science,” says bird flu expert Robert Webster, who has known Doherty for decades. “That's part of his inquisitive mind: don't accept what's written, question it, challenge it and make fun of it if necessary.”

I've got about the same celebrity status as a minor figure in a coffee commercial.

Doherty's broad interests began as a child when, chased indoors by the harsh Australian sun because of his sensitive Irish skin, he turned to books. He was also intensely religious—something that did not fall away until he attended university and began valuing evidence—and bent on saving the world.

At the tender age of 17, he decided that by becoming a veterinarian, he would increase food production. “I was going to create more animals so we could kill them. That's not very fashionable at the moment,” he says, laughing. “My feeling about animals is breed 'em, feed 'em, eat 'em.”

Bored to tears by the work, he began reading books on immunology and pathogenesis. A Nature ad in 1967 then beckoned him to the Moredun Research Institute in Edinburgh, where he helped to run the neuropathology division and enrolled part-time as a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh.

It was there that he met the only person he credits as a mentor, Richard Barlow, whom Doherty says taught him to write concisely. When Doherty returned to Australian National University in Canberra in 1971, Rolf Zinkernagel was placed in the lab with him because of space constraints. “And because Rolf sang opera,” particularly Cherubino's song from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, Doherty says. “Nobody else could stand it.”

By the time Doherty was in his early 30s, he and Zinkernagel had already done the work that would earn them the Nobel. Apart from some murmuring that their advisor, Bob Blanden, should have shared in the prize, their win was uncontroversial. “This was such a unique observation that everyone was delighted,” says Webster.

Doherty took full advantage of his status as a laureate to take on scientific and ethical issues. The first year after his win, he extolled the virtues of vaccination. Since then, he has lectured and written about, among other things, funding for research, the welfare system, global warming and women's health.

His first book, The Beginner's Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize, has some autobiographical elements interspersed with his irreverent humor. His second, expected to be out in Australia in October, is tentatively titled A Light History of Hot Air. And its scope is typical of Doherty: “everything from hot air balloons to political hot air to central heating to flying on the Concorde, to lighthouses, to the conflagration of war.”

Although neither book has much to do with immunology, Doherty sees an enormous need for one that would educate people about the immune system. His own greatest success at explaining the concepts, he says, was on an Australian national television program, using a banana to represent an infected cell, grapes as killer T cells and oranges as macrophages.

“People are turning back more and more to angels and fairies and crystals and rapture,” he says. “I think unless some people from the scientific community engage in the broader world, you've got a real problem.”

Despite his wide ranging interests, however, Doherty has always been happiest when he's working on a scientific problem, scanning the data for patterns and discussing experiments with younger colleagues. Even at the height of his career, when he was enormously busy, he was “endlessly available” and ran a lively and stimulating lab brimming with ideas, recalls Judy Owen, professor of biology at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

As a postdoc in Doherty's lab between 1978 and 1981, Owen was married with two children. “He was ahead of his time in being supportive of women scientists,” she says. “He's unsentimental but he's also extremely moral.”

Even decades later, Doherty frequently calls to inquire about the health of Owen's husband, who was diagnosed with glioblastoma. “He doesn't have to do that. I worked for him 26 years ago,” she says. “And it's not just me, he keeps in touch with all his former lab people.”

Still, Doherty's one stint as an administrator in Canberra did not end well. “The less said about this time (1982-1988) the better,” Doherty writes in his Nobel essay, “as I am still trying to get the overall experience in perspective.”

For years, Doherty and his wife, Penny, have balanced their lives between the US and Australia with a lab and a child on each continent. Now 66, he has dual appointments at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, and The University of Melbourne.

But although he occasionally sees things his younger colleagues miss, and writes “a hell of a lot better than most of them,” Doherty says he's gearing up to retire in about five years. “I think if you go on with it too long, you become a problem,” he says. “A lot of scientists do it, they can't let go because I think they're sort of pathetic.”

He says he looks forward to stepping back from science and taking on science and society—and he's got the popularity to pull it off. “I'm very well known in Australia, for a scientist, you know,” he says. “I've got about the same celebrity status as a minor figure in a coffee commercial.”

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Peter Doherty's Nobel Prize essay

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Mandavilli, A. Profile: Peter Doherty. Nat Med 13, 655 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/nm0607-655

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