Stanley Prusiner: a victory lap for a heretical neurologist

Abigail Zuger of the New York Times writes that sweet revenge comes in many delectable forms, among them the receipt of accolades for work long scorned. And then to get to tell the whole story at length and without a single interruption — small wonder that the Nobel laureate Dr. Stanley B. Prusiner, a renowned neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco, writes with a cheerful bounce. Once disparaged, his scientific work is now hailed as visionary, and his memoir takes the reader on a leisurely and immensely readable victory lap from then to now.

PRUSINERIn the process, two stories unfold. The first is the progress of Dr. Prusiner’s thinking on the transmissible proteins he named prions (PREE-ons) in 1982, starting with his first experiments on an obscure disease of sheep and ending with the most recent work linking prions to an array of human neurological catastrophes, including Alzheimer’s disease. The science is convoluted, like the proteins, and for the uninitiated the best way to achieve a rudimentary grasp of the subject is to hear it the way Dr. Prusiner tells it, from the very beginning.

But a parallel narrative turns out to be equally fascinating: perhaps not since James D. Watson’s 1968 memoir “The Double Helix“ has the down and dirty business of world-class science been given such an airing. Dr. Watson raised eyebrows with his gossipy account of the serious task of unraveling the genetic code — and he was working in genteel postwar Britain at the time, with experimental science still at least in theory a gentleman’s game. That illusion is long gone: The stakes are considerably higher now, the competition fierce, the pace frantic, and Dr. Prusiner, 71, revisits quite a few of the battles that punctuated his long research career.