Nobel Winner David Julius Remembers His Youth in ‘Dense, Gritty’ Brighton Beach


(JTA) — Brooklyn native David Julius, a professor of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, whose grandparents fled antisemitism in Czarist Russia, was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine on Monday.

He shared the award with Ardem Patapoutian, a molecular biologist and neuroscientist at the Scripps Research center.

The Nobel Prize committee cited Julius and Patapoutian’s research “for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch,” which have improved treatments for pain caused by a range of diseases.

Julius was born in 1955 and grew up in Brighton Beach, which was then home to a large population of Russian Jewish emigres. In accepting the 2020 Kavli Prize in neuroscience, Julius wrote an essay saying he has lived in Northern California for more than half of his life, but “I remain a native New Yorker in temperament and humor.”

He described Brighton Beach as “a landing pad for Eastern European immigrants like my grandparents, who fled Czarist Russia and antisemitism in pursuit of a better life. Consequently, my parents are first-generation Americans. They grew up in this NYC enclave, attended public schools, and earned first-class higher educations at tuition-free Brooklyn College, exemplifying what some of us still cherish as the American credo of open borders and opportunity for all.”

Julius attended Abraham Lincoln High School,  whose alumnae include Arthur Miller, Joseph Heller, Mel Brooks, Beverly Sills, Neil Diamond and  scientists Arthur Kornberg, Paul Berg and Jerome Karle.

“Brighton Beach was dense and somewhat gritty, but not a bad place to grow up, with easy access to the beach and just a subway ride from the metropolis of Manhattan,” Julius wrote. “And in the days before ‘dynamic pricing,’ museums, concerts and Broadway shows were generally affordable, enabling even a middle-class kid to experience transformative culture moments. At the same time, there was plenty of opportunity for pickup games of basketball or summer frolicking at the beach alongside a million or more New Yorkers who would flock to Brighton or nearby Coney Island to catch a breeze on a hot and muggy summer day.”

A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, Julius has spent his career researching the way human senses like touch, pain, and heat function and has used capsaicin, the chemical in chili peppers that makes them burn, to explore how human nerve endings feel heat.

“These breakthrough discoveries launched intense research activities leading to a rapid increase in our understanding of how our nervous system senses heat, cold, and mechanical stimuli,” the Nobel Prize committee wrote in its announcement of the winners.