Commemoration of David's Death

Peter Gouras

David and I became friends as floor-mates about 8 years ago on the 4th floor of the Eye Research Annex of the Harkness Eye Institute at Columbia University where we were both Professors. David was thrust into what I had considered some of my laboratory space by Tony Donn, then our department chairman. Sharing space usually leads to trouble between ambitious scientists. David's lab was a little sloppy; my lab was obsessively organized. A clash seemed inevitable. What happened was quite the opposite. As the days and years went by I began to realize what a treasure had arrived at our university. David was brilliant and humorous and most important to the 4th floor, a party man. David was a singer, a drinker, a social charmer and a Don Juan with a twinkle in his eye. He loved our parties and he was the first Englishman I saw doing Irish step dancing at our St. Patrick day festivities. We celebrated his birthdays, some several years in advance, his guest scientists' arrivals and departures and sometimes just for the fun of it. David added a charm and elegance to our 4th floor universe that continues to delight us as we reminisce on what he had said or would have said.

But it wasn't his partying that made me love David. It was his mind. David was brilliant and he honed this brilliance with humor and uncompromising principles, a powerful and rare combination. He loved experimentation, often on himself. He wanted to get it right and he did. He made extraordinary discoveries where others with less imagination considered back-water areas. In my opinion, David was the greatest scientist to ever work at the Harkness Eye Institute or in fact at our medical school. Tony Donn's most noteworthy accomplishment during his reign as chairman was to bring David Maurice to Columbia. Thanks Tony!

I have the pleasure and honor of bestowing an award every two years for outstanding research in Vision and Ophthalmology. It was established by the estate of another remarkable man, Ludwig von Sallmann, who left Austria in 1938 to restart his life here in NYC. David knew von Sallmann and liked him. David accepted the 8th such prize in 1996. In contrast to all previous awardees, David wrote a paper to commemorate the event. This paper was short but terrific. It offered a revolutionary new hypothesis to a field of brain research, which David was essentially a stranger to. It concerns a phenomenon called rapid eye movement sleep. When you sleep and dream your eyes move rapidly. Scientists thought this was important for brain function, perhaps memory and learning. David's extraordinary paper indicated that these movements were needed to keep the eye from destroying itself because without eye movement, the front window of the eye, the cornea, gets no oxygen and dies. This alone might be the sole reason for eye movements in sleep. No one on earth thought of such a thing and believe me rapid eye movement sleep has been investigated for half a century by many very distinguished scientists. David's extraordinary hypothesis received a written compliment from Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize winner, who probably made the greatest contribution to science in the 20th century. Crick's letter to David was on my bulletin board on the 4th floor of the Eye Institute for a long time.

David turned down many distinguished awards because of his principles. He refused the Alcon Award because he didn't want to collaborate with industry. He refused the prestigious Helen Keller Prize because he thought that receiving two awards, the von Sallmann Prize and the Helen Keller Prize, within a year was too much for one scientist. There are few men with such extraordinary principles.

Just before he died I had read a full page add in the NY Times organized by a physicist at NYU, who wanted to unite scientists opposed to Sharon's policy for Israel. I contacted this physicist but was told that only Jewish scientists were wanted. I went to David and said you must join. David answered by saying he was not Jewish. He didn't believe in religions and thought they were responsible for much of the misery in the world. I of course agreed with David and realized why we were such good friends.

I have just returned from a meeting in Vienna where I met John Marshall from England who knew and admired David and was saddened by his death. He told me an anecdote that is typical David. In May, David was in a wheel chair at our annual ARVO meeting in Florida, which he very much enjoyed attending. John Marshall saw me wheeling David around and told me he had done the same thing at which time David told John that he had gained a totally new perspective on life from that wheel chair. Previously he spent much of his time peering down on the bodices of women but now in the wheel chair he found himself looking up at their breasts from below, an angle he had never appreciated before. Typical David, humorous to the end!

John also told me about the David Maurice Memorial Window at the Eye Institute in London. Just before he left for America, David wrote on this window the following. "For close on a quarter of a century David Maurice, scientist, inventor, entrepreneur and dreamer stared out of this window onto Clare Court. He received no inspiration, but learned a great deal about the personal lives of its inhabitants". For the next half a century we on the contrary have received great inspiration from David and hopefully will continue to enrich this experience by often remembering this remarkable man forever.

I want to add one last remark. Several years ago in the corridor of that 4th floor, I was delighted to be introduced by David to his sister and brother. This was a wonderful experience for me because I had never met them but on several occasions had phoned his sister in Stockholm when I was collaborating at the Karolinska and remembered her warm, enthusiastic voice and her generous offers to use her apartment if I wished; she even had a computer. David's brother I never knew existed. But to see all three of them together on that 4th floor, I detected a family similarity in their faces and their behavior that reminded me of David. It was not only David who was remarkable, it was the entire Maurice family.