Campus & Community

Arthur K. Solomon

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Faculty of Medicine – Memorial Minute

At a meeting of the Committee of Memorial Minutes of the Faculty of Medicine Dec. 16, 2004, the following Minute was selected.

Arthur Kaskel Solomon was very much an exemplification of what his friend C.P. Snow called “The Two Cultures”. A pioneer in the establishment of biophysics at Harvard, in the United States and internationally, he was also a major art collector, assembling a first-class collection extending from the early 19th century to the present. He knew many of the major figures of the day both in science and art and was a host to all in his splendid house on Craigie Street in Cambridge, a dwelling he had saved from destruction in the mid-1940s and which he always referred to fondly as “Craigie Street”.

In addition to establishing The Biophysical Laboratory at Harvard, Arthur played key roles in the establishment of The Biophysical Society in this country and the International Union of Pure and Applied Biophysics.

Arthur was born on November 26, 1912, in Pittsburgh. His mother died when he was just six in the 1918 flu epidemic. He and his father moved to his aunt’s house, where he lived until he left Pittsburgh. He attended Shady Side Academy, a private boarding school. He slept there Monday through Thursday, returning to his aunt’s house for the weekend. From his maternal grandfather, Arthur Nattans, Arthur inherited a chain of drug stores, which gave him substantial financial security from an early age.

Arthur moved on to Princeton for his undergraduate years and there began his lifelong interests in science and art. He majored in chemistry and initially at Princeton became deeply interested in theater. He also took up photography at Princeton, and that led to an introduction to Alfred Stieglitz and many long afternoons in New York discussing photography and art in Stieglitz’s gallery. It was through Stieglitz that Arthur bought his first paintings. At Princeton, Arthur also became fascinated with radioactivity and wrote his thesis on it.

Graduating from Princeton in 1934, Arthur moved to the Harvard Chemistry Department for his graduate work, first with Oscar K. Rice and then with the physical chemist, George Kistiakowsky. With both men, Arthur learned how to make various kinds of scientific apparatus, and again this experience was to play a key role in the early days of the Biophysical Laboratory at Harvard that Arthur established. Arthur also expanded his art interests while a graduate student, auditing courses in art history especially from Paul Sachs, Harvard’s great Fogg Art Museum Director and connoisseur of drawings.

Arthur completed his Ph.D. in 1937, writing his thesis on the spectrum of deuterated benzene. In this same year, artificial radioactivity was discovered, and Arthur believed it was now possible to do things with radioactive isotopes not possible before. He applied to Lord Rutherford at the famed Cavendish Physics Laboratory in Cambridge, England, for postdoctoral training and was accepted. The Cavendish was building a cyclotron at that moment and the hope was that the resulting radioactive isotopes could be used for the study of chemical and biological reactions.

Unfortunately, the cyclotron was not completed when Arthur arrived in Cambridge and Lord Rutherford died shortly after his arrival. Arthur joined the team assembling the cyclotron and gained valuable experience with that venture, but also became involved in building radioactivity detectors and scalers, as well as measuring radioactivity, endeavors that again served him well in later years.

Arthur maintained his interest in art during those two postdoctoral years, writing a column on art for the Cambridge literary magazine Granta. He also did popular science writing on radioactivity for a magazine called Discovery edited by C.P. Snow, and this led to his friendship with Snow. Five articles were written for Discovery that eventually were turned into a book Why Smash Atoms? which was published by the Harvard University Press in 1940.

Arthur returned to the United States in August of 1939, to George Kistiakowsky’s laboratory for a second postdoctoral fellowship. The project with which he became involved originated with James Conant, President of Harvard and organic chemist who was interested in the in vivo synthesis of glucose. Conant had enlisted the help of the biochemist A. Baird Hastings at the Harvard Medical School who, in turn, approached Kistiakowsky to help make the radioactive precursors for the experiments and to measure the radioactive products. Kistiakowsky assigned the job to Arthur, and the assembled team soon showed that glucose is synthesized in the body from bicarbonate, a considerable surprise at the time (and contrary to Conant’s idea that glucose is synthesized in vivo from two lactic acid molecules).

Arthur, like most scientists at Harvard and elsewhere, was soon involved in war-related research and his group was assigned the task of evaluating the permeability of the skin to poisonous gases. Soon feeling this research was too distantly related to the war effort, Arthur volunteered to go to England to work with his former Cavendish colleagues on radar. He remained in England for four years, until 1945. Arthur’s substantial contributions to this work earned him thanks and honors from the British government and King. During this time in England Arthur married for the first time, to Jean Roth, an American girl he met in 1938. He was then in Bermuda on an enforced vacation because of an elevated white blood count thought to be due to radiation exposure. When Arthur went to England in 1941, Jean came too, with the American Red Cross. They were married in 1944.

Arthur returned to the States in January of 1945 and temporarily joined the Radiation Laboratory at M.I.T., mainly doing public relations. He met Gerald Piel and Dennis Flanagan at that time, became friends with them and was an initial investor in their magazine, Scientific American. An administrative position followed for a year with the American Cancer Society, arranged by Baird Hastings who was anxious that Arthur come to the Harvard Medical School to spearhead an effort on radioactive tracers. An appointment for Arthur, as Assistant Professor of Physiological Chemistry, came through as of July 1, 1946, and he was given the assignment of heading what was to become The Biophysical Laboratory on the ground floor of Building D of the Harvard Medical School quadrangle. The main role of The Biophysical Laboratory in the early days was to distribute and sometimes purify radioactive materials, build and maintain radioactivity counters and scalers, and even, for a while, to count radioactivity in samples provided by Harvard Medical School faculty. Among the other tasks assigned to the Biophysical Laboratory was to develop guidelines on permissible amounts of radioactivity to be given to subjects or patients.

Whereas Arthur collaborated with many Harvard faculty members during the early years of The Biophysical Laboratory, he did not have his own specific research problem. But as the Laboratory matured, it was time for Arthur to find his own niche. He chose to focus on quantitative ion flux measurements, initially across the red cell membrane. This line of research began in 1950 on the permeability of the red cell membrane to sodium and potassium and ended in the mid-nineties with a paper on urea and small amide permeability through the red cell membrane.

Arthur’s studies on the quantitative transport of ions and other substances across membranes using radioactive tracers soon extended beyond the red cell to the kidney, gastrointestinal epithelium and other systems including the alga Nitella with its giant cells. An especially important advance spearheaded by Arthur was the revival and extension of kidney micropuncture techniques previously developed by A. N. Richards. Arthur and his colleagues adapted these techniques such that they could examine, using radioactive tracers, how kidney tubules modify the composition of artificial solutions.

The Biophysical Laboratory became a lively place attracting distinguished investigators from around the world. In the decade from 1955-1965, those working at the Laboratory included Peter Curran, Jared Diamond, Charles Paganelli, Stanley Schultz, Erich Windhager, Guillermo Wuhittenbury and, as a visitor, Aaron Katchalsky, brother of the President of Israel. Investigators from Venezuela were especially numerous over the years and Arthur was recognized by the Government of Venezuela with the Order of Andres Bello in the 1970s.

An important feature of Arthur’s research was its quantitation. He also was one of the first to recognize that water passes through the membrane via specific pores or channels and he devoted considerable effort to characterizing these channels. Arthur and his colleagues also studied the active transport of substances across membranes and they made many important contributions. His studies with Peter Curran in the late 1950’s on the coupling of water and Na+ transport in the intestine are viewed as key in the development of rehydration therapy for cholera. Arthur was appointed Professor of Biophysics in 1968.

In addition to establishing The Biophysical Laboratory at Harvard, Arthur played key roles in the establishment of The Biophysical Society in this country and the International Union of Pure and Applied Biophysics. He played a particularly important role in the founding of the International Biophysics Union, serving first on its Steering and Constitution Committee and then as its Secretary-General for 11 years (1961-1972). The Biophysics Society was incorporated in 1957 and the International Union in 1961.

At Harvard in the late 1950s, Arthur pushed hard for the establishment of a graduate program in Biophysics. Although to be based in the Medical School, he wanted the program to be an across-campus program, the first of its kind at Harvard, involving members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences as well as the Medical School. The program began in 1959, and despite vigorous opposition from unconvinced colleagues, it became a tremendous success. Arthur ran the program from its inception in 1959 until 1980.

The other important avocation of Arthur’s, collecting art, also flourished over the years. While a postdoctoral fellow in Cambridge he met Justin Thannhauser, son of a famous German art dealer and himself a well-known dealer through Justin’s son, Heinz, an undergraduate at Cambridge. The family had fled the Nazis and had settled in Paris. Arthur spent vacations in Paris, often with the Thannhausers. Justin Thannhauser specialized in 19th and 20 th century art and was a friend of Picasso to whom Arthur was introduced. It was from Thannhauser that Arthur bought his first important picture – a Van Gogh drawing. By the time Arthur left England in 1939, he had purchased six or seven other pictures, including a large Picasso portrait of Fernande Olivier, painted in 1906. While Arthur was in England during the war, his paintings resided at the Fogg Art Museum, the Picasso portrait in an honored place behind Paul Sachs’ desk. This portrait plus two other important pieces are now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; the rest of the collection will reside in the Fogg Art Museum.

During the war, Arthur’s collecting involved the decorative arts, but following the war, he resumed his friendship with Thannhauser who had relocated to New York. Arthur was soon again purchasing important pieces including a Cézanne watercolor, a self-portrait by Monet, a Matisse, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Over the years, Arthur added many other pictures to his collection, both from Justin Thannhauser and other dealers. His collection expanded, going back in time to include pictures by Delacroix, Corot, Courbet and Gérricault. He also began to buy sculpture, including a Rodin, Degas and Lehmbruck.

By the 1970s, collecting art from the 19th and early 20th century had become very expensive, and so Arthur and his wife, Marny, began to collect contemporary art. They converted the barn in back of Craigie Street into a small gallery and filled it with important pieces by Noland, Olitski, Bush and many others. Some sculpture is there as well including a Henry Moore and Michael Steiner. Another new collecting venture included Old Master prints introduced to him by Marny and Majorie Cohn, Curator of Prints at the Fogg Art Museum.

Arthur formally retired from the Medical School in 1983, but he maintained an active laboratory until the mid-1990s. He participated in the Biophysics Graduate Program until just a few years before his death, which occurred on November 6, 2002, in his 90th year.

Respectfully submitted,

John E. Dowling, Chair
Jared Diamond
Eugene P. Kennedy
James M. Hogle
Mariot Fraser Solomon