The accidental purist
Physiologist Benjamin Kaminer says that
breakthroughs, in life and in the lab, are often
the result of "random collision."
by Eric McHenry
Benjamin Kaminer doesn't mind approaching
prickly subjects. In fact, his research requires
Chair of the department of physiology at the
School of Medicine, Kaminer investigates calcium
regulation in the eggs of sea urchins when he's not
busy preparing or delivering lectures.
His dedication to both the pedagogical and
research aspects of his profession were recognized
Thursday night at the New Faculty Orientation in
Metcalf Hall, when president Jon Westling presented
Kaminer with the 1998 University Scholar/ Teacher
of the Year Award.
The $2,000 prize, Westling said, is reserved for
"someone who brings to the classroom both exemplary
erudition and the art of conveying that knowledge
"You have no better model than Dr. Kaminer," he
said, addressing the new faculty, "both as scholar
and as teacher."
Such accolades are nothing new to Kaminer.
At last spring's commencement, he was
honored with MED's Stanley L. Robbins Award for
Excellence in Teach-ing, a prize whose recipient is
determined by students.
"Those students," Westling said in presenting
the Scholar/Teacher Award, "speak repeatedly of
[Kaminer's] enthusiasm, his love of learning, and
his commitment to the highest academic standards.
"One student warns that, 'His method of teaching
is so wonderful that you stop writing and just
listen, which is not always good.' "
Working to engage students visually, Kaminer
acknowledges, is integral to his lectures. He's
been known to stand on desks, inflate animal lungs,
and pass nasogastric tubes down his own nose to
make sure a class fully understands a process he's
"I've always felt the need to be able to
demonstrate models to the students -- to actually
let them observe phenomena," says Kaminer. "I like
to convey very important, basic physical and
chemical principles that apply to the body. The
body is a machine, and it follows all the laws of
physics and chemistry."
"He provides wonderful demonstrations that
really make the concepts come alive for students,"
says Judith Saide, who has taught with Kaminer in
the department of physiology for 20 years. "Even in
front of 200 students, he's able to make the
material easily accessible."
Kaminer was born in Poland, but his immediate
family moved to South Africa when he was very
"There was a migration of, particularly, the
Jewish population from Eastern Europe at the time,"
he says. "They were suffering from Russian pogroms
and other anti-Semitic elements, and America and
South Africa were opening up. Diamonds and gold
were discovered in South Africa, and there was the
prospect of making a living."
His parents' decision was prescient.
Anti-Semitism in Europe, of course, only became
more pervasive as the Second World War approached.
The Holocaust claimed every relative of Kaminer's
who had remained in Poland.
In 1946, Kaminer received his medical degree
from the University of Witwatersrand in
Johannesburg. Partly out of unease with the
political climate in South Africa at the time, he
departed to London for post-graduate research in
1949, but circumstances compelled him to return two
"Many events in one's life are accidental and
unplanned," he says, "and often involve random
collision. Many important choices are brought about
by random collision. I had a sudden call that my
mother was seriously ill in South Africa, and my
wife and I had to leave everything in London very
abruptly. She had cancer, and I didn't know how
long I'd have to remain there.
"I visited my old medical school and some of my
old friends, and there was a new chairman of the
department of physiology. He suggested that I join
them in the meantime. So I came into the field of
physiology through this tragic accident in my
Kaminer has been at BU since 1970. He came on
the recommendation of Nobel Laureate Albert
Szent-Györgyi, with whom he worked in the
Marine Biology Laboratory at Woods Hole. Kaminer
says his mentoring by Szent-Györgyi was
another un-planned development. Some of Kaminer's
early research had been informed by
Szent-Györgyi's work. After eight years of
teaching at his alma mater, a Rockefeller
Fellowship and a long-overdue sabbatical enabled
Kaminer to come to Szent-Györgyi's lab in the
"When we had first left South Africa in 1949,"
said Kaminer, "we had decided to leave for good. I
returned because my mother became ill. But we had,
in a sense, said goodbye to South Africa because we
felt that in the long run we couldn't tolerate
living under the social and political conditions
there, and I felt helpless to do anything about
them. So when I returned, even though for various
reasons I remained there for eight years, I always
saw it as temporary. My plan was to work with
Szent-Györgyi for a year, then go back to
England. But as it turned out -- you see what I
mean about accidents -- I remained in
Szent-Györgyi's laboratory for 10 years, and
then I went to Harvard for a short while, and then
I was offered this position.
"Life is a series of accidents," he says.
"Obviously I'm on a general pathway, which keeps me
in science and medicine. I'm not on Wall Street,
nor am I manufacturing plumbing utilities. Within a
particular trajectory, each person is subject to
all sorts of accidents."
And for all the precision it demands, laboratory
work is no different, he says.
"Serendipity plays a role in research, and so do
intuitive ideas. You pursue some, and some turn out
to be wrong. You must always be ready to drop an
idea when you see that you're on the wrong