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Once Ridiculed For Research, Maine Biologist Awarded Nobel Prize

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
Nobel prize winner Jeffrey C. Hall speaks with a visitor at his home in Cambridge, Maine, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017.

A retired biologist living in Maine was awarded the Nobel Prize for physiology on Monday.

Dr. Jeffrey Hall is among three American scientists who won the prize for their discoveries about the body’s internal clock. He and his fellow laureates’ work launched new areas of research and reveal how important sleep is to overall well-being.

Scientists have known about the circadian rhythms that regulate the daily life of living creatures for centuries. But until Hall and two other scientists conducted their research on the matter, no one understood how those rhythms worked.

“Working on the little fruit fly, drosophila, we found about what underpins the fly’s overt daily rhythms, like sleep-wake cycles,” Hall says.

Along with his fellow Laureates, he was able to isolate genes in the fruit fly that revealed that biological clocks are regulated internally.

“It’s controlled by the circadian clock buried deep in your brain, buried deep in the brain of every mammal, every human — including, well, fruit flies,” Hall says.

Understanding how that internal clock works, he says, has important implications for health.

“If you understand how rhythms are normally regulated in animals, including humans, then rhythm-related maladies like sleep disorders, for example, you might be able to deal with a human feature of non-well-being better if you understand how the normal phenomenon works,” he says.

Hall conducted the research during a career that spanned about 40 years, mostly at Brandeis University. He took a sabbatical to the University of Maine a little more than a decade ago, decided to move to the state and retired soon after.

Hall, who is 72, is gratified to have his work recognized, especially, he says, because it wasn’t always taken seriously by other scientists.

“We were publicly ridiculed for doing this kind of research. I heard it with my own ears, in person, in public, many times,” he says.

Hall had no idea his work on fruit flies would have such broad implications. But he says the Nobel Prize highlights the importance of research on lower organisms. He calls fruit flies the greatest research organism that has been and ever will be.

This story was originally published Oct. 2, 2017 at 5:41 p.m. ET.