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November 6, 2015
CC Exhibit Showcases Decorated Lunch Bags

For years, Dr. Bob Weisberg ate lunch with a group of his fellow scientists every Thursday. He unpacked each of his lunches from a brown paper bag, which his wife, Judy, had decorated to spur conversations beyond science. The bags commemorated milestones such as anniversaries, birthdays and holidays and marked important events, or depicted pigs—their favorite animal. After removing his lunch, he passed the bag around the table for everyone to see.

A sampling of the bags is now on display on the 5th floor of the Clinical Center. The exhibit, titled “Lunch Bags from My Heart: Memoirs of a Marriage,” features 14 decorated sacks.

Weisberg was an “NIH lifer,” according to his wife. He headed the section on microbial genetics in NICHD’s Laboratory of Molecular Genetics. Although he retired in 2008, he continued to work as a scientist emeritus at NCI’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology until his death in 2011.

Judy realized that scientists love to talk about science, but she also believed that a break to consider other matters would enliven their lunchtime.

So she sent her decorated bags to the lab with her husband so he and his colleagues could talk about something other than work. She had started years earlier, with her children’s lunch bags. When they outgrew her decorations, she switched to her husband’s lunch bags. She personalized each one with newspaper clippings, cartoons or notes and stickers.

She did this, however, on one condition: that Bob tell her what the group had talked about at lunch. And each day, he brought the used bag home and recounted the lunch table conversation.

Dr. Susan Gottesman, co-chief of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, regularly ate with Bob after Lambda Lunch seminar series meetings (a prokaryotic interest group). She said the bags were “entertaining and fun to look at”—a high point of her week.

The exhibit almost didn’t happen. Years ago, Judy didn’t know what to do with all the bags that had piled up over time. She thought she’d burn them in the fireplace. At the last minute, the Weisbergs’ daughter Eve persuaded Judy to rescue them.

After suffering a back injury, Judy decided to make a memoir of her years with Bob, featuring the saved lunch bags. While she recovered, she scanned every bag on a computer—418 in all. The result was a 700-page book depicting the bags, front and back.

At first, Judy thought she’d share her work only with friends and family. However, one of her neighbors, an artist, suggested that she display some representative bags at the Penn Place Gallery in Garrett Park, the town where she lives.

After a successful run there, the exhibit can now be seen until January 2016 at the Clinical Center. The venue has special meaning for Judy, because it was here in 1969 that Bob had his first NIH job. She is honored to share a glimpse of her family tradition, in hopes that it will provide some pleasant diversion for patients and staff.

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