Renato Dulbecco

Renato Dulbecco Biography

Educator, Scientist (1914–2012)
Renato Dulbecco was an Italian-American virologist best known for winning the Nobel Prize for pioneering the growing of viruses in culture.


Born in Italy in 1914, Renato Dulbecco was a virologist who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine along with Howard M. Temin and David Baltimore. In the 1950s, the three men pioneered the growing of viruses in a culture, lending insight into cell growth. The research helped pave the way for studying cancer cells in the fight against cancer. Dulbecco died in 2012 in La Jolla, California.

Early Life and Education

Renato Dulbecco was born on February 22, 1914, in Catanzaro, Italy. After World War I, his family moved to Imperia, a small resort town in northwest Italy. Young Renato thrived in this environment, spending time at the beach and at a small meteorological laboratory where he developed a strong liking for physics, putting this knowledge to good use building a small working seismograph. He also built a vacuum-tube radio so his mother could listen to opera.

Dulbecco graduated from high school at age 16 and enrolled in the University of Turin. Though he excelled in math and physics, he followed his passion and studied medicine, and often ranked at the top of his class. At Turin, he worked under the supervision of Giuseppe Levi and met Salvador Luria and Rita Levi-Montalcini, both of whom would later have a great influence on him.

Called to War

In 1936, Dulbecco obtained his medical degree and was later called up for military service in the Italian Army. He served as a medical officer in France and then subsequently was sent to the Russian Front, where he was injured and hospitalized for several months. When the Mussolini government collapsed, he joined the resistance as a physician against the German occupation. After the war, he returned to Levi's laboratory and worked with Rita Levi-Montalcini, who advised him to go to the United States. Salvador Luria was already there and also encouraged him to emigrate. Dulbecco left Italy in the summer of 1947.

Relocating to the United States

Dulbecco joined Luria at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, where he discovered that enzymes can repair cells damaged by ultraviolet light exposure. This attracted the interest of Max Delbrück, a leading professor at the California Institute of Technology, who offered Dulbecco a job at Caltech. The budding scientist packed his young family into his old car and drove to California. Dulbecco was fascinated by the immensity of the United States and the kindness of its people. As he and his family made their way to Oregon and then down the coast to Pasadena, Dulbecco resolved never to live anywhere else in the world. He became an American citizen in 1953.

Discoveries in Cancer Research

During the 1950s, Dulbecco worked with Marguerite Vogt on how polyomavirus, which produces tumors in mice, inserts its DNA into the DNA of a host cell. The cell then undergoes transformation (a term coined by Dulbecco) into a cancer cell, reproducing the viral DNA along with its own and creating more cancer cells. Dulbecco suggested that human cancers could be caused by a similar reproduction. This research provided some of the first clues to the genetic nature of cancer. It also led Dulbecco in 1962 to become a founding member of the Salk Institute and in 1972 to take an assignment at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London, where the scientist had the opportunity to work with human cancers.

Nobel Prize

In 1975, Dulbecco shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Howard M. Temin and David Baltimore, for their work in cancer cell transformation. Dulbecco attributed much of his success to the work he did with colleagues such as Giuseppe Levi, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Herman Muller, Max Delbrück and Marguerite Vogt. In his Nobel Prize address, Dulbecco called for increased restrictions on tobacco use and urged governments to make greater efforts to limit the introduction of dangerous chemicals into the environment.

Later Life

In 1977, Dulbecco returned to the Salk Institute and joined the medical faculty at the University of California, San Diego. In 1986, he suggested that a genome project be started to further the understanding of DNA and cancer. Though not well received at first by his colleagues, the genome project has since proved invaluable to biological research. Dulbecco retired to La Jolla, California, and died of natural causes on February 19, 2012, just three days short of his 98th birthday.

Fact Check

We strive for accuracy and fairness. If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!