Joseph Gal, PhD, was trained in chemistry, is fluent in French, and spent most of his career in medical science research. More recently, he focused his activities on the history of science and more specifically on the renowned French scientist Louis Pasteur.
Gal, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado School of Medicine (SOM) with an adjoint appointment at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences (CU Pharmacy), has been awarded the 2022 Franklin-Lavoisier Prize. The prize, presented by the Science History Institute of Philadelphia and the Foundation de la Maison de la Chimie in Paris, recognizes meritorious efforts in the preservation or promotion of the entwined scientific heritage of France and the U.S. The prestigious award is presented alternately in the United States and France every two years.
In appreciation of Gal’s important contributions to the global chemical heritage and his significant role in fostering relations between the chemical communities of France and the United States, Gal was the unanimous and enthusiastic choice of the Selection Committee to receive the 2022 Franklin-Lavoisier Prize.
Gal was originally nominated for the award in 2015. “I was surprised to receive this now. I have done the kind of work that fits the prize for a long time. I became a scientist, but I never lost my love for history,” he said.
Interest in Louis Pasteur
After working in the SOM as a professor of medicine and pathology and doing bench research for 30 years, Gal started publishing on the history of science. His interest in history began in his youth. Gal became fluent in French while attending a French high school in Cairo, Egypt, while living there with his family. Much later, Gal developed an interest in Pasteur’s chemistry work.
Pasteur was a perfect fit for someone like Gal, whose chemical research focused on the phenomenon of stereoisomerism, i.e., the existence of multiple forms of the same chemical structure of some molecules. This is an area in which Pasteur made important discoveries.
“That was one reason I became interested in Pasteur. The other reason is that he was French, and I could read his publications in the original,” Gal said.
Pasteur is widely known and admired in the world today, primarily as a microbiologist who invented the rabies vaccine and made other important discoveries in microbiology such as the process of pasteurization. He is much less well known for his important chemistry work.
Studies in chirality
Gal’s bench research and some of his lectures at CU focused on a form of stereoisomerism known as molecular chirality. The term chirality, or handedness, means that an object or molecule cannot be superposed on its mirror image. It was Pasteur who, in 1848, discovered that some molecules exist in non-superposable mirror-image forms, one of the most important discoveries in chemistry.
In 1977, Gal was appointed assistant professor in medicine and pharmacology at the CU SOM and director of the Drug Assay Lab of University of Colorado Hospital. He also received a joint appointment at the then-CU School Pharmacy (it was renamed the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences in 2011). His teaching focused on the breakdown of drugs in the body, or drug metabolism.
Gal’s deep understanding of these concepts greatly enriched the academic experiences of students at the SOM and School of Pharmacy. His joint appointment attests to the collaborative nature of schools on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus that continue to seek deeper partnerships that fuel scientific understanding and discovery.
“We thank Dr. Gal for his long-standing and studious commitment to the history of medicine, science and culture,” said Louis Diamond, PhD, dean and professor emeritus at the School of Pharmacy. “I personally thank him for everything he has done over the long course of his career to support and nurture our School of Pharmacy. Dr. Gal has been a great friend of our school and has often and unselfishly shared his expertise and wisdom with us.”
For his Franklin-Lavoisier Prize ceremony this fall, Gal will present a lecture on Pasteur’s discovery of molecular chirality. Congratulations to Gal for this much-deserved prize celebrating his career that has broadened our understanding of chemistry and its significant historical effects on culture and society.
Laura Veith is a special contributor