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March 3, 2005

Honors Convocation 2005

From Galileo to Darwin, from genetically modified food to organ transplantation, from the atom bomb to the polio vaccine, science and controversy will never be separated.

That was the message, and the warning, from keynote speaker Julius S. Youngner, a pioneer in the science of virology, who spoke at the 29th annual honors convocation Monday, the 218th birthday of Pitt’s founding.

Youngner, Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry in Pitt’s School of Medicine, was recruited to the University – “my intellectual and scientific home since I arrived here in the spring of ’49” – as a member of the Jonas Salk research team that developed the first effective vaccine against poliomyelitis, approved for general use in 1955. He is the sole surviving member of Salk’s core research group.

In introducing Youngner to the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial honors convocation crowd, Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said, “Today we have a special opportunity to hear from an honored member of the University community whose expertise, commitment, insight, creativity and passion have dramatically advanced the cause of human health,” particularly in his role to the development of the Salk polio vaccine.

“Dr. Youngner’s very significant contributions to the success of that magnificent triumph took many forms,” including the development of trypsinization, a technique for culturing animal cells on a large scale that aided in the production of vast quantities of the polio virus in cell cultures, Nordenberg said.

“This technique changed the face of tissue culture investigation and became the standard laboratory procedure throughout the country,” the chancellor said. “He made significant contributions in developing processes for inactivating the virus, weakening it enough so that it would not cause the disease, but keeping it strong enough that it would cause an immune reaction.”

In addition, Youngner developed tests for quantifying polio and determining its strength, Nordenberg said.

“But to discuss his effort in purely scientific terms does not do him justice for the human impact of the laboratory’s success,” he continued. “Dr. Youngner and colleagues were racing against what seemed to be an unstoppable force. April 1955 brought the public declaration, following successful field testing, that the race had been won. This was one of the greatest victories in the history of medicine, and triggered a collective sigh of relief in this country and in other parts of the world.”

Nordenberg then conferred the honorary degree, Doctor of Public Service, on Youngner, who received a standing ovation.

In addition to his role in the development of the polio vaccine, Youngner during his army days in World War II worked in a toxicology unit on another 20th century seminal scientific event, the development of the atomic bomb.

“The contrast between the subsequent histories of the two events is illustrative of the two faces that scientific advances can exhibit,” Youngner said.

“In the case of the atomic bomb project, there were many positive things that came from this destructive effort,” including advances in particle physics and radiobiology, the use of radiation and radioactive isotopes to diagnose and treat disease, and the use of nuclear reactors to generate electricity, he said.

“However, the downside of the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb that won the war with Japan is still very much with us,” Youngner said. “Once the nuclear genie was out of the bottle, the proliferation of nuclear weapons programs in many countries became and continues to be a serious threat to the peace of the world.”

The disposal of nuclear waste from both peaceful and aggressive uses of nuclear energy also is a problem the world has yet to solve, he noted.

In contrast, controversy within the scientific community, despite sharing a common goal, surrounded the development of the Salk polio vaccine, he said. “There was vehement opposition to the idea that a killed virus vaccine would be effective against the disease. Very prominent and vocal opponents of the killed vaccine claimed that only a live, attenuated vaccine would prevent polio. Time has proved that both sides of this debate were correct; this is not the usual outcome to most heated debates.”

Scientific advances invariably create vexing issues for society, Youngner maintained.

As a classic example, he cited Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, first proposed more than 100 years ago.

“We now know that Darwin wasn’t completely correct, that he didn’t know everything we do now how our biological world came to be what it is today,” Youngner acknowledged.

But scientists applying the post-Darwin disciplines of paleontology, embryology and DNA sequencing have accepted evolution as the determining factor in the development of the biological world, he said.

“In spite of all of this evidence, a large portion of our population clings to an unyielding denial of the validity of evolution.” That controversy is played out in a tug-of-war between the science teachers who teach evolution as a well-documented scientific theory and some religious groups pushing creationism or its cousin, intelligent design, that is “creationism in a white lab coat,” Youngner said.

“Why do we have such fundamental and emotional controversies about evolution as well as other issues? It is because we are dealing with two very different systems of thought: science and faith,” Youngner said. “Faith has to be unquestioning; it is belief that does not demand proof and that is not based on proof. Science, on the other hand, depends on evidence and demands proof.”

It is inevitable with fundamental issues, evolution being only one, that the two systems of thought cannot be reconciled, he said.

“Denial and rejection in the face of evidence has a long history,” Youngner continued.

In 1633 the Catholic Church convicted Galileo of heresy, placed him under house arrest for the last 10 years of his life and condemned his writings to its list of prohibited books, where they remained for 200 years.

“What was his heresy? By astronomical observations and calculations, Galileo confirmed and extended the conclusion of Copernicus that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of our solar system,” Youngner said, which contradicted a literal interpretation of the Bible.

“What this illustrates is that human perception of the physical world we experience is frequently at odds with scientific reality,” he added. “I find it hard to believe that those who today interpret the Bible literally as far as evolution is concerned would agree with those who judged Galileo, and claim that the Earth is the center of our solar system, not the Sun.”

Today’s “hot button” issues in science include genetically altered food; transplantation, including the issue of organ retrieval and the potential use of genetically modified animal organs; global warming; the definition of death – “Is it brain death, or is it irreversible cardiac arrest, or something else? The latest artificial techniques for life support are making the answer to the question more difficult,” Youngner said.

Stem cell research is another controversial issue. “Embryonic stem cells possess the property of ‘pluripotency,’ that is, under proper stimulation these cells can give rise to many different cell types corresponding to specific organs,” Youngner said.

Current federal rules severely limit scientists in this country from developing new and promising stem cell lines because stem cell research and therapy require the use of donated embryos not intended for implantation into a womb.

“We are dealing with the question: Is an early human embryo a person? It is no wonder that scientists, who argue among themselves, have been joined by ethicists, religious authorities and, most recently, by jurists, who have come down on both sides of this issue,” Youngner said.

“Rather than further inflame the passions of my audience, in closing, I urge you, whatever the arguments, pro or con, presented to you, that you always try to demand proof before making judgments. Science and society will profit and thank you for maintaining this attitude.”


The University holds the honors convocation annually to recognize undergraduate, graduate and professional students’ academic achievement; student leadership, and faculty and staff accomplishments.

The convocation also honored three 2005 Distinguished Alumni Fellows for outstanding achievement in their respective professions and service to the community.

Recipients of the alumni awards are:

* Carlos Angulo-Galvis, president of the Universidad de los Andes, in Bogotá, Colombia. Angulo-Galvis has been credited with changing the socioeconomic profile of the Universidad de los Andes students by helping low-income families gain access to high-quality education. He also has supervised some of Colombia’s largest public works projects, including construction of one of the tallest hydroelectric dams in the world.

In recognition of his leadership and service, the Colombian government has honored him with the Orden al Mérito Julio Garavito en el Grado de Gran Cruz and the Condecoración Francisco de Paula Santander en el Grado Máximo.

He earned both B.S. and M.S. degrees in civil engineering from Pitt, in 1958 and 1959, respectively.

* Henry J. Mankin, the Edith M. Ashley Professor Emeritus of Orthopaedics at the Harvard Medical School.

Mankin, who currently serves as a senior research consultant for the Orthopaedic Oncology Service at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and was chief of orthopaedic surgery at MGH from 1972 to 1996, earned his bachelor’s degree in business in 1952 and his medical degree in 1953, both at Pitt. He also was honored as a Pitt Legacy Laureate in 2002.

Mankin’s clinical interests include orthopaedic biologic research in the fields of cartilage, osteoarthritis, bone and cartilage allografting and Gaucher disease. He has served as president of the Orthopaedic Research Society, the American Orthopaedic Association, the Musculoskeletal Tumor Society, the Academic Orthopaedic Society and the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery. He is an honorary fellow in the Royal College of Surgeons of London and an honorary member of the Thai, Japanese, Australian, New Zealand, Argentine, Israeli, Canadian and British orthopaedic societies.

* Francine G. McNairy, president of Millersville University of Pennsylvania.

McNairy, who is a member of the Pennsylvania State Board of Education and served as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Millersville, earned a B.A. in sociology in 1968, an M.A. in social work in 1970 and a Ph.D. in speech rhetoric/communication in 1978, all from Pitt.

Prior to her appointment at Millersville, McNairy was associate provost at West Chester University of Pennsylvania and dean of academic support services and assistant to the vice president for academic affairs at Clarion University of Pennsylvania.

McNairy’s scholarship focuses on the freshman seminar program, outcomes assessment, black student retention, minority curriculum development and academic support services. Most recently she was named Outstanding First Year Advocate by the National Resource Center for First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

-Peter Hart

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