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Judah Folkman
Judah Folkman
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  Judah Folkman

Would you say you were a gifted child?

Judah Folkman: I didn't think so because I always had to struggle with math and other things, but I always had a lot of ideas. Those ideas came very easily. And I liked to work in the laboratory.

Did you feel different from other kids?

Judah Folkman: No, I really didn't. I didn't feel different because I noticed I had to struggle with certain things, and other things came easy. The great physicist Richard Feynman wrote in his biography that he was so brilliant that he always felt that he was in a retarded institution. That's feeling different! No, I was just going along and my interest was in science. I was a good student, but there were other kids with scientific interests.

How did you get from this childhood interest in science to the kind of research you do now?

Judah Folkman: I began laboratory experiments in junior high school and high school. Science Club experiments. There were two extremely good teachers, a geometry teacher and a chemistry teacher at Becksley High School in Columbus who had a major influence on me. I began to do experiments, and they would allow more and more advanced experiments, beyond the lessons. They would say, "Come back after school and try this, try that."

You mentioned some teachers. Could you tell us why they were important to you?

Judah Folkman: In high school, there were a number of outstanding teachers, but two were really critical. One was a teacher who taught geometry and solid geometry. John Schott his name was. And he would allow you to solve problems. So you'd get the problem solved, like in the book. Then he would say to some of the students, "Can you do it another way?" And we always thought there was only one way to solve a problem. He said, "No, try it another way." And then when you'd get it that way, he would say, "Can you do it another way?" And then you began to learn that there were a whole series of ways to solve the same problem but the book only had one way. And he would say, "Can you make a model of it." So instead of drawing a graph, he would say, "Can you make a three-dimensional model." And he had all kinds of pieces of tools and things around in his geometry class. And so it was extremely interesting, because he made you solve problems that weren't written anywhere. So then I first got the idea you could do that.

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The second teacher was a chemistry teacher. His name was Smith. After the first semester of chemistry, he would give these exams in which he would hand you a tube that was an unknown. You would add copper to it, and see if it precipitated as red. You would then know the answer was copper sulfate, and on and on. And every time you got it right, he'd give you another one. The more you got, the higher the grade. When you got it wrong, that's when you stopped. Pretty soon everybody had left, there were just two of us, and he was still giving us unknowns.

So he gave me something that was crystal clear, and none of the tests worked. I put everything in it. No precipitate came down. So I said to him, "This could be water. Just plain water." And he said, "Okay. Prove it." He had given us still water, just to see how we would handle that, because that's something you'd never test for.

About a month before, in physics, they showed us that if you have a light bulb with two wires going to a battery, and you cut one wire and put it in water, the current is broken because electricity can't go through water. But if you added a small amount of salt, the bulb would begin to glow, because now the water conducted. Pretty impressive experiment. So I told him about that experiment, and said that would be a way to test it. He said, "Why don't we go up to the physics class?" Instead of saying, "Okay, that's right," he said, "Show me." So we went up to the physics room. It was now five o'clock in the afternoon, and there was nobody there. We got that apparatus and he put the sample in and the bulb would not light up. So that meant there was water. If it was any other salt, it would have lit up.

-It was very impressive. I remember going home that day, thinking that you can cross fields. You can solve problems by crossing a whole lot of fields. We had always thought that you did chemistry and you used chemistry books, you do physics in the physics books, and English is English. That they didn't cross over. That lesson was a very important one. These teachers really went out of their way. He could have just said, "Look, it's five o'clock. Okay, it's water."

As a young person, what person do you think most inspired you?

Judah Folkman: A lot of inspiration came from father and mother, and then there were the teachers I mentioned. There were also two members of the congregation who had a big influence.

While I was in high school, I always seemed to have to work much harder at math. I mentioned that. It seemed to come hard. So there was a mathematician in the congregation named Ben Eisner. His hobby was mathematics, but he was in business. But he was a terrific mathematician. And he decided that every Saturday afternoon, whenever -- he would call every Saturday morning, say, "Are you free?" and if I was -- it was about once a month -- he would come out for about three hours, both my brother and myself, and we would just do problems, but only -- no paper. He would say, "Do it in your head." So he would just sit there and he'd say, "Now let's see, this train is going this fast, this train's coming this fast," and, and then, tell us something. And I would say, "Well, I need a piece of paper." He said, "No, you don't." And he would say, "Just imagine a track that's one foot, and another track that's a half-foot, and then imagine the velocity is such and such, and how fast will you traverse that?"

Then he went into statistics. All kinds of practical mathematics. Wind speed, air speed, everything. It lasted about two years. He did it totally voluntarily. I never knew why. Dad must have mentioned something to him, and he offered to do it.

There was another member of the congregation who worked in a varnish factory. He was the chemist, the analytical chemist for a varnish factory, and he said -- this was in high school -- "If you have time on Thursday afternoons, if you could, want to come by?" And then in the summer -- so in the summer I worked for him, and measuring mixed ratios of solvents to paint and everything, and he was always doing the quality control. But he had a big chemistry lab. And so I learned a lot from him about what chemistry was like on a practical way, and how you had to be very careful about the numbers. So you did a little experiment on a bench, but if you were off three decimal places and it went to a 100,000 gallon production, the company'd go bankrupt. So he said, "What I'm doing is very important. The decimal places are important." So that was a good lesson about accuracy.

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