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Renato Dulbecco Edit Profile

Biologist , educator , scientist , Virologist

Renato Dulbecco was an Italian American biologist and educator, pioneer in the field of virology, the study of viruses.


Renato Dulbecco was born on February 22, 1914 in Catanzaro, Italy, the son of Leonardo, a civil engineer, and Maria (Virdia) Dulbecco. His father was called into military service during World War I, and his mother moved the children to northern Italy, where they lived in Turin and Cuneo.


After the war, Dulbecco's family relocated to Imperia, where Dulbecco received his primary and secondary education.

He developed an interest in Physics and built an electronic seismograph, one of the earliest of its kind. He considered going into Physics, but his mother persuaded him to study medicine when he entered the University Torino in 1930 at the age of sixteen. By the end of his first year of study, he realized that he was more interested in biology than in medicine, so he went to work as an assistant in the laboratory of Giuseppe Levi, a professor of anatomy and an expert on nerve tissue, where he learned histology (the study of plant and animal tissue structure at the microscopic level) and the techniques of cell culture. He earned Bachelor of Science degree in 1932 and Doctor of Medicine degree in 1936.

He had a lot of honorary degrees from different universities: Honorary Doctor of Science, Yale University, 1968; Honorary Doctor of Science, Vrije University, Brussels, 1978; Honorary Doctor of Science, Indiana University, 1984; Honorary Doctor of Science, University Bologna, 1988; Honorary Doctor of Laws, University Glasgow, Scotland, 1970.


After the end of the war in 1945, Dulbecco was elected a city councilor of Turin but soon gave up the position to return to scientific study and research at the University of Turin. In 1946 Luria invited Dulbecco to join his research group at the University of Indiana at Bloomington. Dulbecco and Levi-Montalcini both immigrated to the United States the following year. He became an American citizen in 1953.

At Indiana, Dulbecco experimented with bacteriophage, viruses that invade and kill bacteria cells. His principal discovery at this time was that bacteriophage previously rendered inactive by exposure to ultraviolet light could be reactivated by exposure to white light of short wavelength. This work attracted the attention of Max Delbruck, a German-born physicist-turned-microbiologist. Delbruck invited Dulbecco to join him at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena.

Dulbecco became a research fellow and later a professor of biology at Caltech, where he remained until 1963.

In his first years at Caltech, Dulbecco continued his studies of bacteriophage. In the early 1950s, however, Delbruck suggested to him that animal virology, that is, the study of the viruses that invade animal cells, might be a fruitful field for investigation. Dulbecco plunged into the new subject with enthusiasm.

In the late 1950s Dulbecco’s interest shifted to the study of animal viruses that could cause cancerous tumors. His research over the next twenty years was devoted to an investigation of the precise manner in which particular viruses could transform host cells in such ways that the cell was either killed or multiplied indefinitely (that is, became cancerous). After working for a while with a virus that causes tumors in chickens, he and his colleagues concentrated primarily on the polyoma virus, which causes tumors in mice. They eventually discovered that the virus’s DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) combined with the DNA of the host cell and remained there as a provirus (a virus that is integrated with a cell’s genetic material and that can be transmitted without causing disintegration when the cell reproduces) which controlled the genetic mechanism of the cell. In a process called cell transformation, the virus could induce a cancer-like state, causing the cell to multiply endlessly in a tissue culture environment in the laboratory. In an animal body, the same process of cell transformation and subsequent cell multiplication led to the growth of cancerous tumors.

In the Salk Institute, a research organization founded by Salk in La Jolla, California, Dulbecco continued his research on animal tumor viruses.

In 1972 Dulbecco moved to London to become assistant (later deputy) director of research at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund.

Dulbecco returned to his beloved southern California in 1977 to become a distinguished research professor at the Salk Institute. He became president of the institute in 1982 and held that position until his retirement in 1992. In addition, during the late 1970s Dulbecco taught at the University of California in San Diego.


  • His first important contribution in the field was his development of a method for determining the number of units of a given virus in a culture of animal cell tissue. This method, called the plaque assay technique, enabled the researcher to count the viral units in a culture by examining the number of plaques, or clear spots, in the culture, where the viruses had killed the host cells. This method was the basis for many of the later important advances made in animal virology. One spectacular practical result of the use of the plaque assay technique was the development of physician Albert Sabin’s polio vaccine, developed from a living virus, used to prevent poliomyelitis, a paralyzing and sometimes lethal disease. This vaccine eventually superseded the vaccine produced earlier by physician Jonas Salk, which was made with a virus killed by formaldehyde.

    He had a lot of awards: Kimble Methodology Award, Public Health Laboratories, 1959; Albert and Mary Lasker Award, 1964; Howard Taylor Ricketts Award, 1965; Paul Ehrlich-Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize, 1967; Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, Columbia University, 1967; Targa d’oro Villa San Giovanni, 1978.


Dulbecco was a trustee of La Jolla Country Day School, American-Italian Federation Cancer Research. And also he was a board member of science counselors department etiology of National Cancer Institute, member of National Academy of Sciences, American Academy Arts and Sciences, Federation American Scientists. He was a foreign member of Royal Society, as well as a foreign member of Academia Nazionale del Lincel. Dulbecco was a fellow of American Philosophical Association, International Physicians for Prevention Nuclear War, American Association Cancer Research and Alpha Omega Alpha.


Dulbecco married Giuseppina Salvo in 1940; they eventually had a son, Peter Leonard Dulbecco, and a daughter, Maria Vittoria Dulbecco. In 1963 he was divorced from his first wife and married Maureen Muir. Renato and Maureen later had one daughter, Fiona Linsey Dulbecco.

Leonardo Maria


Gulseppina Salvo

Maureen Rutherford Muir

Peter Leonard Dulbecco (deceased)

Maria Vittoria Dulbecco