The Molecules of Emotion: Candace Pert 1946-2013

Several weeks ago a light went out in the world of healing.  The scientific community lost one of its pioneers.  Women’s rights lost one of their true trailblazers for women in science and medicine.  The alternative medicine community lost one of its most powerful and respected voices.  I lost a friend, mentor, colleague and a patient.

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Candace Pert, scientist, mother, pioneer

Once in a great while we witness genius among us.  We often do not see this as it is happening, only when it has passed.  I was lucky enough to know Candace both professionally and personally.

Dr. Pert was a neuroscientist, pharmacologist and a “bona fide member of the club” of the National Academy of Sciences.  In science terms, that is the “NFL” of the intellectual of the intellectuals.  She is credited for unlocking a chemical mystery of the brain, while in graduate school,  and being at the center of one of science’s great discoveries.  In the early 1970s, she discovered the opiate receptor- the first verified receptor in the brain and the one responsive to pain medication such as morphine and Oxycodone.

The Nobel Prize controversy

After publishing with her colleagues in the journal Science in 1973 on their findings, a crescendo of discoveries were to lead her to an apex of women’s rights and the state of science and medicine in the United States circa the 1970s.  It boiled down to this:  Dr. Pert’s supervisor, Solomon Snyder at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine shared the Lasker award with Dr. Hughes and Dr. Kosterlitz for basic medical research.  In the “inner circles” of science awards, this is usually the precursor to being awarded the Nobel Prize.  Dr Pert attracted media attention on her omission from the award. Dr. Pert argued that she continued the research after Snyder had ordered her to move onto other projects.  The Washington Post reported that according to some observers, she was excluded from the award because she was a woman.

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Candace Pert and Sol Snyder

According to my colleagues who were doing their doctorate work at the time at Harvard, the “inside consensus” was that she cost Sol Snyder the Nobel.  They went onto to say that “she paid dearly for this quagmire, as that was a career killing move with regards to a science career in academia.”  The Smithsonian reported that Candace Pert became “something of a pariah to the establishment.”

On a more personal note, as she advised me on more than one occasion on my medical and academic future, she felt she had “stepped over the line” at that time in her life.  She said that there was a time in her life where she thought the scientific world and medical establishment was against her.  In hindsight, she says it was a “cytokine storm in a sea of good ol’ boys and the emergence of science and the new frontier- that being neuroscience.”  The harder reality was that the attempt is always “trying to find balance.  I had my kids while I was pursuing my doctorate. There were was a big taboo for a scientist to find time for rearing children.  These are not challenges that none of my male colleagues had to endure.”

HIV and Science of the Mind

In 1982, she became section chief for brain biochemistry at the National Institute for Mental Health, (NIMH.)  In 1987, she began her own private lab with her husband Michael Ruff, immunologist-virologist,  to continue research on a vaccine for HIV/AIDS.  Up until the time of her death, she worked in her own private lab (RAPID pharmaceuticals) in Silver Spring, Maryland.  She appeared in the Bill Moyers in the 1993 PBS special, “Healing and the Mind,” as well as the movie “What the Bleep do we Know!?” in 2004.

Full Circle

In May of 2013 at the American Pain Society‘s Pre-Conference on CAM, (Complementary and Alternative Medicine),  Dr. Pert was one of the speakers on molecular biology and neuroscience.  She noted to me later at the conference , “Gonzo, I have witnessed my work come full circle. There are people who come up to me and tell me how much I meant to them when they were doing their graduate work in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.”  I recall her saying, “Gonzo, the gratitude from my peers in the scientific community is one thing that I am in awe of.  At the time, early in my career as a scientist, as a graduate student, I walked into the fire, not knowing the ramifications.  At that time, I did not really care, and I was standing up for something.  Upon years of reflection, I see we have a long way to go in the future of science and medicine.  At least here at the [American Pain Society] meeting, I am able to see things begin a new era in science and medicine.  I thank all of those people whose lives I touched as well as their kindness and reflection that I see in their brilliant work.  It is great to know that the dream lives on.”

Thank you for dreaming Dr. Pert.  I will miss you always.


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