Candace Pert, who made one of the most pivotal discoveries of recent decades while a graduate student of pharmacology at Johns Hopkins University in the 1970s, died on 12 September, at age 67, of what The Washington Post called "apparent cardiovascular arrest." She was first to identify the opiate receptor, which was the first of the brain receptors to be found. This discovery led to transformative research on brain function based on molecular "locks" and the peptides that fit into them. Pert did not, however, receive the recognition that she believed her work deserved.
The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation recognized the field that followed from Pert's discovery. But it was Pert's supervisor, Solomon Snyder, who in 1978 shared the prestigious Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award with two scientists working in Scotland, Hans Kosterlitz and John Hughes, the first to isolate the enkephalins, natural chemicals that bind to the opiate receptors.
Unlike countless graduate students who have swallowed such slights as price of their subordinate positions—and, perhaps, in hope of the future favors from their mentors—Pert broke with precedent and publicly objected. That action revealed an independence of mind that reportedly endured for the rest of her life. In the decades following her protest of what she viewed as an injustice, she followed lines of research that some considered unconventional.
Pert expressed her displeasure at her exclusion from the Lasker Award by declining to attend the award luncheon and by sending a frank letter to the Lasker Foundation's head, Mary Lasker. Pert wrote that she was "angry and upset to be excluded from this year's Award," reported J. L. Marx in Science in January 1979. "As Dr. Snyder's graduate student," Pert's letter continued, "I played a key role in initiating this research and following it up... ."
"Many people, Pert and Snyder among them, think that the jury of scientists who selected the award winners passed over Pert principally because she was a graduate student when she participated in the research in question," Marx's Science article states. "The graduate students who often do most of the actual research are rarely cited for their contributions when the prizes are given out. The students are simply viewed more as hands than as heads. There are also suspicions that Pert's sex militated against her selection."
No one denied Pert’s role in the research, and Snyder acknowledged it in his acceptance statement. "I am honored that the Lasker Foundation has chosen this year to recognize the field of opiate receptor and opiate-like peptide research," he said. "Among the many people who contributed to this area, my own special thanks go to Candace Pert who, as a graduate student, identified the opiate receptors in my laboratory."
Snyder, Hughes, and Kosterlitz were among those sharing another prize for the enkephalin work, the 1977 National Institute on Drug Abuse [NIDA] Pacesetter Award. In 1979, William Pollin of the NIDA Division of Research wrote, in a letter published in Science, "In retrospect, we feel that it was a significant omission on our part that Dr. Candace Pert was not included. Her graduate student role was the issue at the time; subsequent increased awareness of her major contribution has led us to this revised conclusion. Selecting recipients for prestigious awards is a complex social process in which 'scientific merit,' unfortunately, is often only one of many considerations. Sometimes, serious mistakes are made."
Despite her distinction as a researcher, Pert's complaint made her "something of a pariah to the establishment," according to the Post, quoting an article in Smithsonian magazine. "Years after the incident," the Post article continues, "she told the Denver Post that she had been 'naïve' and 'stepped too far over the line.' "
Pert continued her research involving peptides, but, perhaps because of her notoriety, her career did not follow the conventional academic path that so brilliant a scientific breakthrough might have foreshadowed. The year after earning her Ph.D., she moved from Hopkins to the National Institute of Mental Health to work as a lab chief, eventually becoming the only female branch chief at the time. In 1978, the year she missed the Lasker Award, she received a different prize, the Arthur S. Fleming Award for distinguished federal service.
Nine years later, she left NIMH to found a company, Peptide Design L.P., in collaboration with her husband, Michael Ruff. She was later a research professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. In 2007, she and Ruff were among the founders of another company, RAPID Pharmaceuticals.
Over the years, Pert’s interest in receptors and peptides included efforts to develop peptide-based treatments for HIV, Alzheimers, and other diseases. She also pursued research on the mind-body connection. Through popular books, lectures, CDs, and other activities related to this subject, she became widely known to nonscientists.
We will never know whether it was her academic status or her gender or both that influenced the "complex social process" that deprived Pert of potentially career-making prizes. "[I]t's very difficult to climb up the bureaucratic ladder if you’re a female," she said, according to the Post. Nonetheless, the Post article continues, "Dr. Pert seemed to embrace her reputation as an independent-minded scientist. She kept in her office a sign that read: 'If you are getting run out of town, get in front of the crowd and make it look like a parade.' "