David Baltimore

Born: March 7, 1938 | New York , NY, US
Photograph of David Baltimore

David Baltimore recounts his early interest in biology, ultimately devoting his PhD thesis to the study of animal virology. To complete his thesis he moved from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Rockefeller University to join Richard M. Franklin who was working with mengovirus. After graduating, Baltimore spent some time at the Salk Institute and then returned to MIT where he continued work on poliovirus and began work on vesicular stomatitis virus. He and his wife, Alice Huang, who at the time was a research associate in his lab, discovered that VSV carried an RNA-dependent RNA polymerase within the virus particle. This work provided the insight that led to his discovery of reverse transcriptase-the enzyme in retroviruses that transcribes DNA from RNA-and won Baltimore the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1975. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0198
No. of pages: 109

Interview Sessions

Sondra Schlesinger
7 February 1994, 13 and 29 April 1995
New York, New York, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Boston, Massachusetts

Abstract of Interview

David Baltimore begins the series of interviews describing his interest in biology as a high-school student and throughout his college years at Swarthmore. During college, he spent a summer at Cold Spring Harbor where he met Cy Levinthal and Salva Luria, both of whom encouraged him to go to graduate school at MIT. As an undergraduate, Baltimore held an interest in viruses. Knowledge and study of animal virology were still very limited, and when he decided to devote his PhD thesis to this topic, he moved to Rockefeller University to join Richard M. Franklin who was working with mengovirus. In his graduate work, he discovered that cultured animal cells infected with mengovirus synthesized an enzyme that catalyzed the synthesis of viral RNA. This was the first example of a virus coding for an RNA-dependent RNA polymerase. He then began working with poliovirus, work that continued for many years. In 1965, Renato Dulbecco asked Baltimore to join him at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. There he initially focused on the replication of poliovirus RNA. With Mike Jacobson, a graduate student, he also began studying viral protein synthesis. Their work contributed to the recognition of the importance of proteolytic processing in the synthesis of eukaryotic proteins. Baltimore left the Salk Institute after two and a half years and returned to MIT in 1968 as an Associate Professor of Microbiology. He continued to focus his research on poliovirus, but also began work on vesicular stomatitis virus [VSV]. He and his wife, Alice Huang, who at the time was a research associate in his lab, discovered that VSV carried an RNA-dependent RNA polymerase within the virus particle. This work provided the insight that led to his discovery of reverse transcriptase—the enzyme in retroviruses that transcribes DNA from RNA—and won Baltimore the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1975 along with Howard Temin and Renato Dulbecco. Baltimore's work with retroviruses was the beginning of his interest in and work on cancer and tumor biology. In the mid-1970s, Baltimore expanded his research interests into the field of immunology, specifically into the areas of B cell development and antibody diversity. Baltimore concludes the interviews with a discussion of the discovery of reverse transcriptase, and thoughts on his research on poliovirus, retroviruses and immunology at MIT in the 1980s. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1960 Swarthmore College BA Chemistry
1964 The Rockefeller University PhD

Professional Experience

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1963 to 1964
Postdoctoral Fellow
1968 to 1972
Associate Professor of Microbiology
1972 to 1990
Professor of Biology
1994 to 1997
Ivan R. Cottrell Professor of Molecular Biology and Immunology
1995 to 1997
Institute Professor

Albert Einstein College of Medicine

1964 to 1965
Postdoctoral Fellow

Salk Institute for Biological Studies

1965 to 1968
Research Associate

American Cancer Society

1973 to 1983
Professor of Microbiology
1994 to 1997
Research Professor

Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research

1982 to 1991
1982 to 1990

The Rockefeller University

1990 to 1991
1990 to 1994

California Institute of Technology

1997 to 2005


Year(s) Award

First recipient of the Gustave Stern Award in Virology


Warren Triennial Prize from the Massachusetts General Hospital


Eli Lilly and Co. Award in Microbiology and Immunology


United States Steel Award in Molecular Biology, National Academy of Sciences


Elected Member of the US National Academy of Sciences


Elected Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences


Gairdner Foundation Annual Award


Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine


Honorary Doctorate, Swarthmore College


Elected Member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences


Elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science


Honorary Fellowship, American Medical Writers Association


Elected Foreign Member, The Royal Society (England)


Honorary Doctorate, Mt. Holyoke College


Honorary Membership, Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society


Elected Member of the Institute of Medicine


Honorary Doctorate, Mt. Sinai Medical Center, New York, NY


Honorary Doctorate, Bard, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY


Honorary Doctorate, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland


Honorary Member, Japanese Biochemical Society


Fellow, American Academy of Microbiology


Member, American Philosophical Society


Fellow, California Council on Science and Technology


Honorary Doctorate, Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel


Fellow, Association for Women in Science


Honorary Doctorate, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Table of Contents

Graduate Education

Interest in biology. Attending MIT. Cy Levinthal. Thesis in animal virology. Summer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Richard M. Franklin. Rockefeller University. Mengovirus. Igor Tamm. Viral RNA synthesis. Poliovirus.


RNA virus enzyme. Returning to MIT. Polio double-stranded RNA. Postdoc at Einstein. Renato Dulbecco. Becoming a Research Associate at the Salk Institute.

Salk Institute

Interest in replicitive intermediates. Protein synthesis. Michael Jacobson, Alice Huang, and Marc Girard. Sabbatical in Paris. Continuing work on polio.

Career at MIT

VSV research. Continuing poliovirus research. Messenger RNA. Virus work worldwide. Defective particles. Developing a course in animal virology. Atmosphere of MIT during late 1960s. American Society for Microbiology (ASM). Biological warfare.

Accomplishments in Science

Gustave Stern Award. VSV research with Alice Huang. RNA tumor viruses. Howard Temin. Discovery of reverse transcriptase. Leukemia viruses. Salvador Luria. Establishment of the Cancer Center. ASM Eli Lilly Award. Nobel Prize.

Later Career

Thoughts on winning Nobel Prize. Serving on Advisory Panels. Becoming American Cancer Society Professor. Interest in biological hazards. Recombinant DNA.

Final Thoughts

Molecular immunology. Antibodies. Decade of work on tumor viruses. Environment of research laboratories. Polio vaccine patent.


About the Interviewer

Sondra Schlesinger

Sondra Schlesinger is professor of molecular microbiology at Washington University School of Medicine. She received her PhD in biological chemistry from the University of Michigan and spent three years as a postdoctoral fellow with Professor Boris Magasanik at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she worked on enzyme induction and regulation in bacteria. She joined the faculty at Washington University in 1964, where initially she continued her research in the field of microbial genetics and physiology. In the early 1970s, she began her research work on the structure and replication of animal RNA viruses, which continues to this day. Dr. Schlesinger has over one hundred publications spanning these areas of microbiology. She was president of the American Society for Virology in 1992–1993, at which time she began her present interest and work in the history of virology.