Fellow scientists pay tribute to Ed Rall

Published3/13/2009 12:02 AM

A few weeks ago, I attended a symposium in Washington, D.C., at the National Institutes of Health honoring Dr. Joseph Edward Rall - Ed Rall - who died one year ago at age 88.

Distinguished speakers came from across the globe to honor this remarkable man, one of the leading authorities in the world on the thyroid gland, whose mentorship of great scientists, including numerous Nobel Laureates in his longtime leadership roles at the NIH, made him a legend in the scientific community.


Ed Rall grew up in the house on the North Central College campus where my wife and I have lived for the past 18 years. His father was president of the college. He learned to be a scientist in the classrooms of North Central College, working - as a partner as well as a student - with his professors one-on-one on research.

Until the end of his life, he would remark on the formative influence of these mentors, and the joys of intellectual engagement and scientific collaboration he first experienced at his alma mater.

Listening to Nobel Laureate Marshall Nirenberg at the NIH event describe his visit to the North Central College campus a decade ago to speak at the Undergraduate Research Symposium - the "Rall Symposium" - we hold every May, it was clear he understood the deep connection between the undergraduate education his friend Ed Rall received on the campus of a small liberal arts college and what he became - "the best scientific director any (NIH) institute ever had," a "consummate scientist," known for recruiting "the best and brightest" to NIH and then creating an environment where they could make breakthrough discoveries.

Dr. Rall's scientific and administrative achievements at the National Institutes of Health took place between the 1950s and the end of the 20th century.

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What makes his example and experience relevant today is the emphasis President Barack Obama is placing on the importance of higher education and America's leadership role in the sciences to keep this country competitive in the 21st century - as well as meet challenges such as cancer and global warming.

As significant as this nation's great graduate research institutions are in addressing those challenges, for more than a century, small liberal arts schools such as North Central College have played a disproportionate role in producing America's scientific leadership. And that role has never been more crucial.

We are in the planning stage of a major capital campaign for new science facilities at North Central College, and one step we have taken is to research the history of our science graduates. I have been overwhelmed by the number who, like Dr. Rall, went on to distinguished careers in medicine, research and business.

We also have begun to put together data and background materials on the impact of undergraduate science programs at liberal arts colleges in preparing graduates for careers in research and medicine.


For a look at some of the results, you may visit www.northcentralcollege.edu/sciencelegacy.

In 2009 - just like 70 years ago when Ed Rall entered North Central College - there is no better place to start a career leading to a Ph.D. in the sciences or an M.D. than a rigorous liberal arts college committed to hands-on science.

• Harold Wilde is president of North Central College in Naperville.

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