On Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI named Nobel laureate Werner Arber, a Protestant, to head the Vatican’s scientific academy, the first time a non-Catholic is heading the centuries-old body.
The 81-year old Swiss microbiologist will succeed Italian Nicola Cabibbo, who died in August, to lead the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Vatican announced in a press release.
The nomination of a non-Catholic head is the first in the history of the academy founded in 1603, according to I.Media, a news agency that specialises in religious information.
Arber, who teaches at the University of Basel, shared a 1978 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Americans Hamilton Smith and Daniel Nathans, for the discovery and application of restriction enzymes.
The discovery and application of the enzymes, which are bacterial defence mechanisms against infection, led to a revolution in molecular genetics.
Arber has been a member of the Vatican’s scientific academy since May 1981 and figures on the board of directors.
Some 30 Nobel laureates are members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which has its roots in the Academy of the Lincei founded by Federico Cesi, a patron of the arts and sciences who also promoted Galileo’s telescope.
The institute, which gathers 80 scientific researchers from around the world, studies six major areas including fundamental sciences, bioethics as well as environmental problems.