One of the 21st Century’s most successful advertising campaigns was “The Most Interesting Man in The World” for the Mexican beer, Dos Equis. The ads featured a stylish, bearded middle-aged man and described his fascinating life. It ended this year after a 12-year run and a failed transition to a younger lead actor. But that “interesting man” was a fictional character. If I had to select the real-life “Most Interesting Man in the World”, it would have been Gustav Born, a 96-year-old medical pharmacologist who died last month. His story reaches over centuries and involves some of the world’s most prominent people and events.
Dr. Born was born in Weimar Germany, eleven years before the Nazis came to power. His mother was a descendant of Martin Luther and his father, Max Born, was a Nobel Laureate in quantum physics whose students included J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the American atomic bomb. Although Max Born’s work was used by other scientists to harness nuclear fission, he refused to do research on the atomic bomb.
Son Gustav was surrounded by his parents’ friends - many of the world’s greatest physicists: Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, Paul Dirac – all Nobel Prize winners. His daughter told a story of Gustav hiding under the piano while Albert Einstein, on a visit to the Born household, played a duet with his father. When Einstein lost his place while they were playing, Gustav recalled his father asking, “Einstein, why can’t you count?”
Einstein corresponded with the Born family frequently and it was in one of those letters that he used one of his legendary phrases “God does not play at dice.” When Hitler came to power, Einstein had already emigrated from Germany and sent correspondences to the Born family urging them to leave as soon as possible.
The Born family did leave Germany before the War and settled in Scotland where Gustav studied medicine. He was in the British Army during World War II and was one of the first two British scientists sent to Hiroshima immediately in the aftermath of the first atomic bomb, ironically engineered by his father’s student, Oppenheimer. Gustav noticed that many of the survivors of the initial blast were dying days or weeks later of uncontrollable bleeding. He attributed that to the bomb’s radiation damage to the victims’ bone marrow which could no longer form platelets, the blood cells critical to clotting. He later recalled, “In the rubble people stood at the roadside, desperate, thin and starving, and very quiet. Thousands were still dying from the effects of radiation.”
This became the basis of his subsequent impressive scientific career. Gustav returned to England and became one of the world’s foremost authorities on platelets, blood clotting, and the related field of atherosclerosis. Much of his research, done with Nobel Prize winner John Vane, involved the use of aspirin to thin the blood and thus prevent heart attacks and strokes. His work at Oxford was a precursor to the modern field of molecular biology. One of his Oxford mentors was Howard Florey, who several years before, was responsible (with his collaborator Ernest Chain, also a German refugee) for treating the world’s first patient with penicillin. Florey and Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on penicillin, and an Australian prime minister said of Florey, “In terms of well-being, Florey was the most important man ever born in Australia.”
Besides his scientific accomplishments, Gustav Born was a talented flutist. Music was a large part of his family tradition and he once donated part of his family collection to Oxford, music composed by Johannes Brahms along with some of Brahms’s personal correspondences to the family. That family music connection continues today – Born’s niece is Olivia Newton-John, who has sold 100 million records worldwide. Olivia, who is experiencing a recurrence of breast cancer, eulogized her uncle as “a kind humble, sweet and thoughtful man who was recognized for his huge contribution to medicine through his work with platelets.”
At the forefront of mid-20th Century history and medical science, Gustav Born was one of the last living links to the intellectual, cultural, and scientific refugees who fled Middle Europe when Adolf Hitler came to power. Perhaps never has such a relatively small group contributed so much to the world in so many areas of endeavor. In addition, Gustav Born was also a familial link to the man behind the 16th Century Protestant Reformation and a woman who is a contemporary international recording celebrity who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Surely all this makes Gustav Born a worthy candidate for “The Most Interesting Man in The World.”
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