May 2012

Living through art and science

Early years
There weren’t many smiles when Schimke was growing up in Spokane, Wash. Born in 1932, “my first eight years were right in the middle of the Depression,” he says. “I really didn’t have a lot of the fancy accoutrements that all kids have these days.”

His father was a dentist and his mother was a homemaker. “They had their own problems,” reflects Schimke. “I didn’t have too happy a childhood.”

A self-described loner, Schimke was most content riding his sister’s bicycle (hers was superior to his) around the forests on the outskirts of Spokane and spending Friday afternoons at his grade school when they held art classes. “I loved to paint and muck around with it,” he says, recalling when he tried to paint daffodils with oil paints and failed. No one around him, however, was an artist, and he didn’t have anyone encouraging him to pursue art. At high school, he abandoned his artistic pursuits.

For his undergraduate degree, Schimke went to Stanford University, where he ended up in the premed program and got married. “My wife was majoring in humanities. One of her courses was on art history,” says Schimke. “I learned more about art history than probably anything else at Stanford!”

After getting his undergraduate degree in 1954, Schimke and his wife went hitchhiking in Europe. “We went to all the art galleries,” says Schimke. “We didn’t go to Spain and Russia, but we saw literally everything else that we possibly could. That was a lot of fun.”

After he returned, Schimke went on to get his medical degree in 1958 from Stanford. He interned at the Massachusetts General Hospital until 1960 and then was drafted into the Public Health Service. The draft got him into the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases, where he worked with Herb Tabor, who later became editor-in-chief for the Journal of Biological Chemistry. In 1966, Schimke returned to Stanford as a faculty member.

Over the years, Schimke’s group made significant contributions to understanding protein turnover, steroid hormone control of gene expression, the connections between cell division and apoptosis, and gene amplification as a way for cells to resist cancer chemotherapy drugs. Schimke’s work on protein turnover and gene amplification was featured as a JBC Classic (1). His work on gene amplification is now used for mass production of large quantities of therapeutic proteins, such as erythropoietin and tissue plasminogen activator, in mammalian cells.

Schimke also was a scientific adviser to Monsanto, DuPont and Amgen and was crucial in helping Amgen launch its first blockbuster drug, Epogen, a version of erythropoietin. Schimke was a JBC associate editor from 1975 to 1981 and from 1983 to 2002 and also served on its editorial board. In addition to numerous awards, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1976 and to the Institute of Medicine in 1983.

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I had the great privilege of a personal tour of Robert's studio and home about 5 years ago while visiting Palo Alto. I was very impressed with the level of dedication he shows in all of his artistic endeavors. Hundreds of wonderful necklaces line the hallway. The shear volume of work is impressive by itself. His painting studio is one to be envied by any artist frustrated with a lack of production space. The visual energy he creates is all about the place as many canvases hang on the walls in view, while others lie about on the floor in mid production. Paint is literally everywhere. His growth as an artist can be traced through the many paintings and each new one seems to be more impressive than the one before. As an artist myself I understand the the creative "carrot on a stick" that his process and artistic journey represents. It boils down to "If you think that one was good, wait till you get a look at my next one". Proud nephew, Matt Bazemore


I have been a close friend, and colleague, of Bob Schimke for many years. He is an exceptionally dedicated individual, whatever he does. I have enjoyed our frequent visits together, in recent years. I greatly enjoyed reading this article in ASBMB Today. Schimke is a wonderful person, it has been wonderful knowing him and interacting with him. Charles Yanofsky


Life without appreciation of at least some forms of art, be it literature, music, painting, sculpture or others, is not worth living. A person who can be creative in both science and art is doubly blessed. We hope that Prof. Schimke will go on shining in his present creative phase for a long time to come and will produce many more of those beautiful paintings for us to admire. I especially liked his 'Four Seasons' and 'Orange Red'.


It is wonderful to see such an inspiring article about a great scientist who has contributed so much to the biological sciences and to learn that, despite adversity, he has a second career as an artist. Keep it up Bob! All the best Dick Hanson


My undergrad Bio mentor, the late J. Fred (Paulo) Dice, did his PhD work with Schimke at Stanford, and I thus have a lineage connection with Bob, although I never met him. However, I read many of his papers, and I still have in my file cabinet a classic paper of his on measuring protein turnover and calculating the fractional catabolic rate and half-life. I am pleased to hear about his life after Science, and his artwork. I particularly liked his painting "Genetics". Jonathan D. Smith, Cleveland Clinic



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