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February 20, 2014

Good Old Days #3. Van Niel and Pacific Grove

by Bernard Strauss

Figure1 Figure 1. The Hopkins Martine Station in Pacific Grove, California. Source.

In 1949, at the end of my second year at Caltech the faculty seems to have decided that I really needed to learn some biology. The method the Caltech faculty adopted was to send me to the summer course in microbiology given at the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University by Cornelis van Niel.

The van Niel course consisted of a summer’s work of classes and laboratory. I was given an office, which I shared with Ruth Sager. The class would meet with van Niel for lecture and discussion and we would then do laboratory work based on the discussion. An idea of the course can be gained from the first exercise. The class suspended some bakers yeast in water and using a microscope looked at the suspension. Van Niel would then go around the room asking students one by one what they saw. Invariably the answer would be yeast cells and the process would continue until some student (possibly warned by those with experience from past years) would say "I see little circles." This was the answer van Niel wanted in order to illustrate the difference between observation and conclusion (I saw circles but van Niel was convinced I had been warned!).

Van Niel was a master at maneuvering class discussion. Again and again he would have the class "design" an experiment, making corrections and inserting controls and then when we were all finished and satisfied with "our" design, Wolf Vishniac, the TA, would wheel in carts with the equipment, media and strains to do exactly the experiment that “we” had designed. (Wolf was the son of the photographer, Roman Vishniac best known for his photographs of pre World War II Eastern Jews but also an accomplished biological photographer).

Figure2 Figure 2. Cornelis Van Niel in his office. Source.

Van Niel was one of the first comparative microbiologists and I learned about comparative biochemistry and the Dutch School of microbiologists, led by Kluyver and Beijeryink and the power of enrichment cultures. Van Niel came to class one day carrying a vial of mud and in an obviously ecstatic mood. The vial had just arrived with some mud from Delft—presumably there was a wealth of microbiology in the sludge of the Dutch canals. Van Niel had been studying photosynthetic sulfur bacteria and saw that the analogy between the stoichiometry of anaerobic photosynthesis (CO2 + 2H2S — (CH2O) + H2O + 2S) and green plant photosynthesis implied that the oxygen evolved in photosynthesis came from the water. We studied sulfur bacteria and nitrogen fixation and learned about pure cultures. I've already mentioned Ruth Sager who had just finished a PhD thesis on corn and was about to start work with Chlamydomonas. Werner Mass was one of the students as was Barbara Bachman who was the first director of the E. coli Genetic Stock Center. Auditing the course was Bernard Davis who had just developed the penicillin method for selecting bacterial mutants, thereby making it possible to isolate large numbers of strains with deficiencies in a variety of metabolic pathways. Davis had been exploiting these mutants with very pretty and simple investigations to work out metabolic pathways and his seminar at Caltech the previous year had been truly exciting. He was very bright, certainly not bashful, and although an “auditor” he participated actively in the class discussions.

At the end of the course there was (naturally) a party and with the party came mock graduation certificates. Bernie (Davis) was given a black-bordered certificate that stated that no matter how hard he tried he just couldn't quite understand, so he flunked. I was given a certificate in "dry lab microbiology" which may indicate something about what I was doing in the class laboratory.

The stay in Pacific Grove wasn’t immediately positive in its effects. Van Niel’s lectures were both unique and irresistible. When I got back to Caltech I based my first seminar on the style I had heard that summer. The talk was much too long (for the audience) and resulted in one of the few times Norm Horowitz (a really patient mentor) really bawled me out. He pointed out, correctly, that while van Niel was effective in his unique way of lecturing I wasn't van Niel and that I needed to develop my own style.


Bernie is Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago (Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology)


Van Niel arrived in Stillwater, OK as the Sigma Xi speaker, in January, 1948, without any hosting plans, and without any hotel room available. A dean took him to the gym, which doubled as an athletic dormitory, and offered Van Niel a cot. My wife and I were horrified and took him to our small apartment, and he lived with us for two days.These were two full days of his views on microbiology, an exciting experience for a young new faculty member. I still tell my students about Van Niels approach; if you want to find a particular bacterium, take a sample from its natural source, ocean, lake,soil, nodules on legume plants, etc. This is a treasured memory as fresh as it was in early 1948.

Dr. Strauss's reminiscence sent me to our copies of van Niel's notes for the courses. I like the following, from the notes for the first period in 1949:

We do an exp't. to get an answer to a question. What sort of answer? Scientifically speaking: an hypothesis that is not contradicted by existing facts. Since latter always limited, former always tentative. "Prove" a theory (or hypothesis)? Testing -- yes; showing it to be "correct" -- no. Poincare

I'm also grateful to Dr. Strauss for providing first names for some of the students, as van Niel had only last names (and had Sager listed as Saeger)

Jeff Karr, ASM Archivist

What a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing it! I took the Microbial Diversity course at Woods Hole in the middle 1990s, after I returned to academia as an older assistant professor. My instructors were the late Abigail Salyers and the irreplaceable Ed Leadbetter. Ed had taken the course in the early 1960s from van Niel himself, and like you had stories at which I marveled. The course at Woods Hole literally changed the way I looked at microbiology (though I was trained as a microbial geneticist, I was very, very narrow and colicentric in my views). Ed and Abigail passed the lessons you describe down to me. I in turn try to pass them along to my undergraduate students. We all stand in the shadows of our predecessors, perhaps, but I am so grateful for the fellow students and guest speakers and Ed and Abigail. Such things I learned...

Pacific Grove is a wonderful place, and I understand that Alfred Spormann at Stanford has brought a Microbial Diversity style course to that location. Even more interesting is that Ed's son Jared Leadbetter at Caltech (along with Dianne Newman) is co-Director of the Microbial Diversity course at Woods Hole's Marine Biological Laboratory. The students who take any of these courses, as you and I know, are very lucky indeed. In fact, I wish I could take the course every few years!

One of the things I most enjoyed at the Woods Hole course was hearing stories about van Niel, and even seeing some of the things he had written while teaching his Microbial Diversity course. I wonder what he would say, if we could obtain a time machine and bring him as a visitor to the current courses? Something pithy, wise, and drily funny at first...and then I would bet serious coin he would introduce some insights of which no one had thought.

Thanks again.

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