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The adviser with the magic wand

Young and old researchers alike come to Claes Wollheim for good advice. He started his job as a mentor after he retired which is typical of his approach to life. Nothing qualifies as an obstacle – not even a serious visual impairment.

Claes Wollheim is Professor Emeritus of experimental diabetes research in Geneva, Switzerland, and for many years he has been an international authority on matters relating to diabetes research. For about two years now he has worked one week a month as mentor at Lund University Diabetes Centre.

Light and darkness

It was in 1971 that his eyesight started to deteriorate. Today he is able to differentiate between light and darkness but he can only distinguish silhouettes. This is where the wand serves as an illustration of his attitude to life. “I travel a lot, and I enjoy it even if I can’t see. When I arrive at a large airport, all I have to do is stand around and look slightly lost. It never takes more than a minute before someone comes and offers to help. In a lot of situations, the white stick is a magic wand”, says Claes Wollheim.

Newcomer at work

Staying on top of the research game for several decades, leading a prestigious research laboratory at the University of Geneva, and then accepting a new position at a new place of work with unknown surroundings and a lot of personnel after retiring is a reflection of Claes Wollheim’s ability to see possibilities rather than difficulties. One challenge is literally finding the way in a new place. “I count steps and learn when to change direction. If I end up in the wrong place, I get annoyed as it means I haven’t been concentrating. I often recognise people on the way they walk. Everybody has a different walk”, he says.

Left Sweden

Strictly speaking, it is not relevant to write about his visual impairment. He himself never refers to it as a disability. “I live a normal life”, he says. Claes Wollheim was born and grew up in Lund. He was meant to become and engineer but both his parents and his brother Frank were doctors and he ended up following the same path. This is not unusual. The medical profession is one that is often passed down through generations.
He studied medicine in Lund but ended up leaving Sweden.

One year turned into 40

“In September of 1971 I was sent to Geneva on a one year research course. Snippe (Anne-Marie), who had recently become my wife, joined me.” That was 40 years ago and they are still there. Claes Wollheim has however retained his mild academic Lund dialect. “In Geneva, I arrived at a fantastic research institution. The offices were in this old residential house, it was crowded, intense and we thought along entirely new lines”, explains Claes Wollheim.

Changed the view of type 2 diabetes

It was here that Claes Wollheim with colleagues took part in changing the way the cause of type 2 diabetes was viewed. Back then, the predominant view was that the disease was caused primarily by inefficiently functioning insulin, where the body’s cells don’t let sugar molecules in, so called insulin resistance. “The head of my unit, Albert Renold, thought that it was primarily the pancreatic cells that were failing, that the beta cells didn’t secrete enough insulin, and that the alpha cells secreted too much glucagon which raises blood glucose levels”, he explains.

Assumed the leadership role

This was to become Claes Wollheim’s research focus. His contract was extended by one year at the time at first. Later on he became senior lecturer and assistant professor and when Albert Renold passed away, Claes Wollheim took over as head of the group. At the same time, his eyesight continued to deteriorate. “I’ve used a lot of different magnifying glasses, magnifiers, cameras that enlarge the text on screen and so forth. My wife has read scientific articles aloud for me and I had a secretary that helped me.” In 1989 it became possible to render printed materials as speech which was a big step forwards, and in 2000 the situation changed radically.

Being computerized

“The computer revolutionized my existence”, says Claes Wollheim, and explains that it all started when one of his research assistants told him he was starting a new project. “Being his boss, I replied that he ought to finish his current projects before starting a new one. No, no, the assistant said. My new project is to computerize you. Since then, I read all scientific literature and write articles and emails using smaller and smaller laptops.” An American piece of software makes it possible for his mobile phone to read all printed text. “The technical advances have indeed been very important, but during lectures I still have to guess what’s on the slides,” he says.

Enjoys spending time with other researchers

Claes Wollheim lives in Geneva and spends one week a month in his summer house in Falsterbo. During this week he works as an advisor at LUDC in Malmö. “When I retired, I was asked if I wanted to come over more often than every other year as a member of the international scientific committee, and now I have the time to do this. I’ve always enjoyed lecturing, especially to smaller groups of people. The researchers here like discussing things with someone who has the time and I enjoy spending time with young people. I think I’m doing some good. On the one hand, I’ve been around for a long time, but I have to keep up-to-date, and I read a lot of scientific literature. I can be generous with good advice, I don’t need any more stars myself”, he says.

A truly scientific family

And here are just some of the stars he has earned along the way. Several hundreds of published scientific articles and more on the way; in 2004 he was made an honorary doctor at Lund University and he is an honorary member of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes. “If I’m to sum up my research achievements I think it’s my work with alpha and beta cells that people will remember. We have to learn to manage the alpha cells in order to be able to better treat type 2 diabetes. The way in which insulin is released by beta cells has become less of a mystery thanks to the work of my fantastic co-workers. The most satisfying thing after a long career is to see the brilliant careers of co-workers, they make up a true scientific family which is spread around the four corners of the world”, he says.

Successes and setbacks

When asked to single out one scientific highlight he deliberates and then eventually selects the publication in Nature in 1999. “We showed that the amino-acid glutamate, which is formed by sugars inside the beta cell, is necessary for the release of insulin”, he says.
Any setbacks?
“Yes, I once had a theory about calcium’s role in the alpha cells, and I worked long and hard to prove it. But, I was wrong. Reality was the exact opposite of my theory and some other researchers figured this out”, explains Claes Wollheim, and establishes that research is often about disproving someone else’s theories – thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.

Making up stories

Over the years, working hours have been many and long, in hindsight perhaps a little too long. Is there a price to pay? “Yes, I don’t think I was a very good father when the children were small, I didn’t have enough time for them and I regret that”, says Claes Wollheim, and says that he is trying to make up for lost ground with his grandchildren. “They like to play with their granddad on the floor, with Lego or toy cars. I can’t read to them but I can make up stories. I’m in a new phase of my life and it’s a good phase.” The grandchildren and a lot of good friends are the reasons why the Wollheims aren’t planning to move back to Sweden. “You don’t move away from your grandchildren”, he explains.

Music and litterature

In this new phase of life, he also has time to listen to music from composers like Schubert, Mahler and Beethoven’s chamber music, and to read Strindberg, Dickens, Tomas Mann, and Solzjenitsyn, for example. He reads and writes four languages, namely Swedish, German, French, and English.

“I’ve got it made. I live, and have lived, a normal, fantastic life. First and foremost thanks to my wife. She has always been there. She has been my unpaid secretary, my sensible adviser, my chauffeur and she has taken care of our children, garden, and house. And, of me.”

Text: Tord Ajanki/Camilla Franks

Claes wollheim

Claes Wollheim