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Last modified: Monday, March 28, 2011

Renowned Italian-American virologist, Nobel Laureate Renato Dulbecco receives IU President's Medal

March 28, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie announced today that he has awarded the President's Medal for Excellence to Italian-American virologist Renato Dulbecco, joint-recipient of the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and one of four Nobel Laureates who worked together at IU in the life sciences during the late 1940s.

The President's Medal is one of the highest honors an IU president can bestow.

Dulbecco President's Medal

Renato Dulbecco, seated in front of (from left to right) his wife, Maureen, Indiana University First Lady Laurie Burns McRobbie and IU President Michael McRobbie.

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Along with his former IU laboratory colleagues Salvador Luria, Hermann Muller and James Watson, Dulbecco, 97, is credited with playing a pivotal role in the development of modern molecular biology and the discovery of the biochemical basis of our genetic codes. One of his major findings—that tumor viruses cause cancer by inserting their own genes into the chromosomes of infected cells—was among the first clues to the genetic nature of cancer. In 1986, he initiated the idea of studying all human genes, helping to launch the worldwide Human Genome Project.

"Indiana University's world-class reputation in the life sciences can in part be directly traced back to path-breaking researchers like Dr. Dulbecco," McRobbie said. "His seminal work involving tumor viruses and the genetic material of the cell dramatically increased our understanding of the cause of human cancer, and he has been an inspiration to scientists worldwide through his work on the origin of breast cancer and leadership of the Human Genome Project. IU shares great pride in his historic achievements, pioneering spirit and lifetime dedication to science."

A native of Catanzaro, Italy, Dulbecco studied medicine at the University of Torino and later served in the Italian army as a medical officer during World War II before joining the resistance against the Nazis. At the urging of a classmate who had been working in the U.S. during the war, Salvador Luria, he left Italy in 1947 for IU Bloomington, where he and Luria shared a small laboratory.

Luria, who would share the 1969 Nobel Prize in medicine for the study of the mechanism of virus infection in living cells, introduced Dulbecco to the study of viruses. The two men were soon joined by a brilliant young graduate student, James Watson, who would later co-discover the structure of DNA and win the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

While at IU, Dulbecco also studied with Hermann Muller, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1946 for his career's work, including the discovery of the production of mutations by means of X-ray irradiation. Dulbecco has credited Muller, who was an IU faculty member at the time he received the Nobel Prize, for teaching him the significance of genetics.

Dulbecco's work at IU quickly attracted the interest of the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech), where he continued his study of viruses and became a full professor. From 1963 to 1972, he was a founding fellow of the internationally renowned Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., and he returned there as a distinguished research professor after serving five years as deputy director of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund Laboratories in London. He served as president of the Salk Institute from 1988 to 1992, and he continues to observe the scientific research there.

Renato Dulbecco

Renato Dulbecco

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In 1964, Dulbecco received the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, one of the most respected science prizes in the world and popularly known as "America's Nobel" for how it often foretells future recognition by the Nobel committee. He shared the Nobel Prize in 1975 with Howard M. Temin and David Baltimore, both of whom studied under him.

He is a founding member of the American-Italian Cancer Foundation, established in New York City in 1980. In 2005, to highlight his professional achievements, the Salk Institute established the Dulbecco Laboratories for Cancer Research.

He received an honorary degree from IU Bloomington in 1984.

About the President's Medal

The President's Medal for Excellence is a reproduction in fine silver of the symbolic jewel of office worn by the president at ceremonial occasions. Criteria for recipients include distinction in public service, service to IU, achievement in a profession and/or extraordinary merit and achievement in the arts, humanities, science, education and industry.

The award was first presented on Sept. 20, 1985, to members of the Beaux Arts Trio.

For a list of past medal recipients, go to