I was born in the shadow of World War II, on December 18, 1939, on the south shore of Long Island, a product of the early twentieth century emigration of Eastern European Jewry to New York City and its environs. My father’s father, Jacob Varmus, left a village of uncertain name near Warsaw just after the turn of the century to become a farmer in Newburgh, New York, and later a hatter in Newark, New Jersey. His wife, Eleanor, was a victim of the influenza epidemic of 1918, when my father was eleven. My mother’s parents, Harry and Regina Barasch, came from farming villages around Linz, Austria, to found a children’s clothing store, still in existence, in Freeport, New York. As children of immigrants, my parents both had notable educations, my father (Frank) at Harvard College (until financial considerations required him to withdraw after two years) and at Tufts Medical School, and my mother (Beatrice) at Wellesley College and the New York School of Social Work.
Three years before my birth, my parents settled in Freeport, my mother’s home town, where my father established a general medical practice, while my mother commuted to a social services job in New York City. With the entry of the United States into the War, however, my father was assigned to an Air Force Hospital near Winter Park, Florida, and my first memories were to be of long beaches, and bass fishing on a lake with alligators. We remained in Florida, spared the pain of war, until early in 1946. In the interim, my only sibling, Ellen Jane, was born; she is now a genetic counselor and mother of three in Berkeley, California.
My growing-up in Freeport was undemanding and in many ways privileged. The public schools I attended were dominated by athletics and rarely inspiring intellectually, but I enjoyed a small circle of interesting friends, despite my ineptitude at team sports and my preference for reading. Life was enriched by frequent outings to Jones Beach State Park (where my father was the medical officer for many years), family skiing vacations to New England, and many outdoor adventures with the Boy Scouts and later the Putney Summer Work Camp.
The most decisive turn in my intellectual history came in the fall of 1957, when I entered Amherst College intending to prepare for medical school. The evident intensity and pleasure of academic life there challenged my presumptions about my future as a physician, and my course of study drifted from science to philosophy and finally to English literature. At the same time, I became active in politics and journalism, ultimately serving as the editor of the college newspaper. Following graduation from Amherst, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship enabled me to test the depth of my interest in literary scholarship by beginning graduate studies at Harvard University. Within the year, I again felt the lure of medicine and entered Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. Although I began medical school with strong interests in psychiatry and international health, I was influenced towards basic medical sciences by the lectures of (among others) Elvin Kabat, Harry Rose, Herbert Rosenkrantz, Erwin Chargaff and Paul Marks. My desires to practice medicine abroad were also tempered by an apprenticeship in a mission hospital in Bareilly, India.
In preparation for a career in academic medicine, I worked as a medical house officer at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital from 1966 to 1968, and then joined Ira Pastan’s laboratory at the National Institutes of Health as a Clinical Associate. This provided me with my first serious exposure to laboratory science and to the excitement of experimental success. Our studies of bacterial gene regulation by cyclic AMP (in collaboration with Bob Perlman and Benoit de Crombrugge) and the evening courses offered to incipient physician-scientists at NIH stimulated me to seek further postdoctoral training in molecular biology, specifically in tumor virology. This decision, combined with an interest in trying life in the San Francisco area, led me to Mike Bishop’s door in 1969. I joined him as a post-doctoral fellow at UC San Francisco in 1970, was appointed Lecturer shortly thereafter, and in 1972 became a regular member of the faculty in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology (led initially by Ernest Jawetz, later by Leon Levintow), ascending to the rank of Professor by 1979.
Throughout the nearly two decades I have been associated with UCSF, most of my research interests have been focused upon the behavior of retroviruses: various aspects of their unusual life cycle, the nature and origin of their transforming genes, and their potential to cause genetic change. Much of this work has been performed in collaboration with Mike Bishop, particularly in the years before 1984 when we shared facilities, personnel, and funds. Other faculty interactions during the 1970’s stimulated work on hemoglobinopathies (with Y.W. Kan) and on glucocorticoid action (with Gordon Tomkins and Keith Yamamoto). During the 1980’s, I also worked extensively on hepatitis B viruses in collaboration with Don Ganem (who was initially a post-doctoral fellow and later a faculty colleague). My career at UCSF has been greatly enhanced by the extraordinary collegiality of the faculty, the excellence of our graduate and medical students, an unremitting stream of first-rate post-doctoral fellows, and the loyalty of our staff research associates, especially Suzanne Ortiz, Nancy Quintrell, and Jean Jackson.
In 1969 I married Constance Louise Casey, then a reporter for Congressional Quarterly in Washington, D.C., her home town, and now the Book Critic for the San Jose Mercury News. Shortly after we moved to California, my parents died, my mother of breast cancer in 1971, my father of coronary artery disease in 1972. Our lives have been made more interesting by the births of Jacob Carey in 1973 and Christopher Isaac in 1978; the boys attend public schools in San Francisco, root for the Giants, and are musically-inclined (Jacob, especially, is a talented trumpeter). California weather has promoted my love of outdoor sports, particularly bicycling, running, backpacking, skiing, and fishing, but I also maintain strong interests in the arts – literature, theatre, music, and film. We have lived almost continuously since 1971 in a Victorian house in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, with the exception of 1978-79, when I was a sabbatic visitor in Mike Fried’s laboratory at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London, and 1988-89, when the award of a Nieman Fellowship to Connie brought her to Harvard and me to the laboratories of Bob Weinberg and David Baltimore at the Whitehead Institute.
Most of the significant honors I have received have been awarded jointly to Mike Bishop, with whom I also share the Nobel Prize. The earlier awards include California Scientist of the Year (1982), the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award (1982), the Passano Foundation Award (1983), the Armand Hammer Cancer Prize (1984), the Alfred P. Sloan Prize from the General Motors Cancer Foundation (1984), the Gairdner Foundation International Award (1984), and the American College of Physicians Award (1987). In addition, I was elected to the National Academy of Science (1984) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1988). I received an honorary degree from Amherst College (1985) and the Alumni Gold Medal from the College of Physicians and Surgeons (1989), and I have been the American Cancer Society Professor of Molecular Virology since 1984.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.
Watch the live stream of the announcements.