by Daniel P. Haeusser
Passing On Experiences & Remembering Whence We Came
I started a draft of this post while sitting out on the Memorial Union lakeside terrace at the University of Wisconsin Madison. It was about halfway through the Molecular Genetics of Bacteria and Phages Conference, a fabulous and inspiring experience that Ananya Sen wrote about here last week. Originating in 1950 and born from the courses of the Luria/Delbrück-organized 'phage group' at Cold Spring Harbor, the early seminal Phage Conference meetings featured the birth of molecular biology through interactions between scientists now known as giants in the field.
Contrary to what Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory may claim, the conference did not end in 2010. That year it did change venue permanently. Yet, a sense of history and tradition continues to permeate the meeting, from its Sternberg Thesis Prize, to the Hatch Echols Tennis Tournament, to the strong participation of young scientists.
This got me thinking a lot about the role that history plays in the formation of both individual scientists and institutions. Despite its ideals, science is a human enterprise subject to personalities; directed (and at times limited) by the provisions of funding and a home. From time to time notable scientists have looked back on their experiences as they reach the end of their career and have published memoirs. In some cases, academic departments/programs have published specialty histories of their institutions: how they were first formed, how they have evolved, and the people who were involved in those processes.
What Related to Microbiology Exists in These Genres?
We here at STC have compiled a rough list of titles from that first category of individual memoirs that fall within the history of Microbiology. Two of them are collections of multiple memoirs. Here is what we’ve come up with, let us know in the comments if you can think of others:
The Double Helix (Watson)
Nazis, Women, and Molecular Biology: Memoirs of a Lucky Self-Hater (Stent)
A Slot Machine, A Broken Test Tube (Luria)
The Statue Within (Jacob)
As I Remember Him: The Biography of R.S. (Zinsser)
For the Love of Enzymes: The Odyssey of a Biochemist (Kornberg)
Making Genes Making Waves (Beckwith)
Dancing Naked in the Mind Field (Mullis)
Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology (Cairns, Stent, Watson, eds.)
Many Faces, Many Microbes: Personal Reflections in Microbiology (Atlas, ed.)
Departmental histories seem more rare, or at least it seems more difficult to find reference to them. Perhaps many exist, but are only known of at their institution where they are perhaps most relevant. Many department websites also have at least a short paragraph on their origins. But in terms of substantial historical records/recollection, these are the examples I was able to come up with:
Milestones in Microbiology
Indiana University Bloomington
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign History of the Department of Microbiology (1868 – 2009) (Halvorson and Clark; Wolfe, ed.)
Recollections of Early Microbiology at Michigan State University (Mallmann)
A History of Microbiology in Philadelphia: 1880 to 2017 (Poupard)
Two new titles can now be added, one to each of the above genre lists: To Make the World Intelligible: A Scientist’s Journey by Franklin M. Harold, and Microbes at OHSU: History and Stories – Molecular Microbiology and Immunology Department by Lidia Crosa.
To Make the World Intelligible
By his own humble admission, Franklin Harold is not a 'giant' in the field whose name is going to strike recognition in biology students like some of the names that are featured in the memoirs listed above. He has of course made important contributions to scientific research, and had secondary involvement in at least one paradigm-shifting moment in our understanding of the cell. But most important, his experiences have given him interesting insights that he sets out to relate to younger scientists. I found those insights both challenging and inspiring to read, and I recommend his writing to all.
“We are not like painters whose works hang in the museums, forever identified with the name of the individual artist. Scientists are likely to be forgotten within a decade of their retirement or death. The way of science is for the best of our achievements to endure in substance but lose their individuality, like raindrops falling into a pond.”
Harold goes through the biographical motions, detailing the family and political setting of his early life (as with many in his generation, this is dominated by World War II and the Nazi anti-Semitism), into the start of his career aspirations as a medical scientist. The 'crackling' of new ideas that came with the birth of molecular biology shifted his studies away from the medical. There seems to be no regret in the directions that the scientific winds of the day took him, as he recalls the influence that one of his instructors had on him: “A productive investigator, elegant writer, and inspiring lecturer Stanier turned half the class onto microbiology. Of what Stanier said in his ten lectures, sixty years ago, I remember nothing. But the message that I heard resonates with me still: Microbes are the smallest and simplest living things; if you want to study the phenomenon of life study bacteria, not rats.”
It is not surprising that hugely important concepts of biology that we now take for granted were at the time of their introduction quite controversial. Examples are aspects of evolution or the existence of Archaea. And as I learned from Harold’s memoir: the Chemiosmotic Theory. An early proponent of Peter Mitchell’s hypothesis, Harold became a sort of bulldog for Mitchell, arguing in reviews in favor of a “growing conviction that a circulation of protons across the plasma membrane underlies energy coupling and the performance of much of the cell’s work.”
Beyond the historical, Harold drives his ruminations to stress two themes relevant for the present and the future. The first of these consists of championing another paradigm change that he puts on the same level as the one of chemiosmosis. To briefly sum it up, he argues against a molecular/genetic-dominant view of biology, demanding that we also take the cellular context fully into account, and asserting that one of the remaining great mysteries of biology is the way that form is inherited without being directly encoded in genes.
“Once again, I found myself well outside the mainstream. Biology today is intensely focused on the molecules of life and particularly on the genes that specify their structures and functions. Morphogenesis, an output of the living system as a whole, calls for a different mindset that puts cells rather than genes in the center. Living things are dynamic systems made up of innumerable molecules that draw matter and energy into themselves, maintain their identity in spite of turnover, and reproduce their own kind. All their mechanisms are molecular, but it is spatial organization that brings molecules to life.”
These types of thoughts on morphogenesis have been the subjects of his most recent reviews. Within his memoir he sums them up in a couple of spots that highlight the stress on form and energy above molecules alone:
“On the face of it, there seems to be a glaring conflict between the geneticist’s understanding of cell organization and the physiologist’s. The former insists that form and organization obey the genome’s writ. The latter sees the genome as a key subroutine within the larger program of the cell, and it is the cell rather than the genome that grows, reproduces, and organizes itself.”
“In my opinion, any hypothesis that seeks to explain the origin of life by postulating an extensive menu of preformed organic molecules and essentially ignores the requirement for energy input is fundamentally off the mark.”
To a degree I feel like this is a straw-man issue, and also akin to the genes versus environment causality debate. I’m not sure that there are many who really believe that life is entirely based on one level (molecular/genes) or the other (cellular organization/environment), even if some tend to stress one aspect alone. It also seems to me that a current direction of research in microbiology is towards an affirmation that links the subdisciplines of biochemistry, genetics, biophysics, and cellular biology to investigate how cellular regulation of molecules and energy defines life. But regardless, his ideas are worth thinking about and discussing.
The second major theme that pops up repeatedly through his memoir concerns the changing face of scientific research in terms of funding and public support. For all that science loves data in forming logical conclusions, we seem to fund research, hire people, and prepare for future jobs with the most unscientific, illogical metrics among any field out there. Like many, Harold looks to how things are currently done, considers how they once were, and wishes it could be so free for the young scientists of today as it was for him and his colleagues long ago.
“What strikes me most forcibly is that research a century ago operated on a much smaller scale than today. Research groups were smaller and more personal, equipment was elementary, and so costs and budgets were more modest. There were no computers, no mega-data projects, and no research papers with a hundred authors. In part for that reason, scientists were allowed more freedom to follow their individual bent even if it led into the wilderness. Eccentricity was tolerated, given liberty to roam, even a little public money, and there was little pressure to justify our exploratory rambles by spelling out their relevance to societal needs."
He ends up alluding to the need for increased scientific communication to the public regarding what we do and its importance, but also speculates that basic science is rapidly losing all pull on society’s interest.
“The public, it seems, by and large still values science and trusts scientists to serve the public interest. But my strong sense is that people neither understand nor appreciate the search for knowledge for its own sake, which is what has historically motivated scientists. People crave the goodies that science brings, commonly in the form of technological products, and they fear the threats and perils that come along; basic science just does not resonate with the way most folks’ minds work. Science has never been a profession for the masses and seems now to be becoming the aspiration of a shrinking minority. The era of spectacular progress in understanding seems to be passing; we shall not see it’s [sic] like again.”
Sadly, this pessimistic and sobering conclusion seems realistic, as does his observation on the similarities between today’s sociopolitical world and that of the one he was born into.
“More than ever the world seems like a seething cauldron, with civilization a crust that keeps our worst impulses from reaching the surface… When the crust of order fractures, all hells break loose.”
Let us hope, and even help make certain, that people read recollections from those of older generations, like this one by Harold, and fight against that happening.
Microbes at OHSU: History and Stories
Lidia Crosa, scientist and wife to Jorge Crosa (1942 – 2012) wrote this biography of the Molecular Microbiology and Immunology Department of the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Though containing some personal reflections, it fits fully into the genre of departmental history as opposed to memoir, with data and summative history dominating the brief stories.
Crosa provides an exhaustive and documented history to the department: the acquisitions, turnover, productivity, and directions of each decade since the founding. Numerous figures enhance each of the chapters, from photographs to reproductions of letters, memos, etc. Beyond the tenured faculty, she also includes chapters with biographical details on OSHU staff, from administrators in the offices to those carrying out building maintenance.
Often dominated by the listing of information/data, Microbes at OHSU isn’t the kind of book you just sit down and read. It really is more of a reference work. As such, it is going to be of greatest value to those affiliated with the institution. Yet, someone particularly interested in studying how microbiology departments are formed and evolve – and on how that impacts research directions – would find it of great use. Even if a bit dry, it portrays and documents many aspects on the birth, growth, and adaptations of a research institution through different eras. Like many department histories it shows how the un-glorified work of regular scientists and educators has led to important work, how a relatively small patch in the universe of science still forms a vital part of the overall tapestry of our field.
Microbes at OHSU is a case in point of a text that has historical value and does honor to the commitment of all those who have populated the halls of a department. Yet, its specifics are relevant to only a small niche. That tiny market of potential readers probably makes writing and publication of this genre difficult. This may be why there are few easily found examples of it compared to a memoir.
So, does your institution have a recorded history? Do you see value in collecting that type of history and data? How far can appreciating a department’s past go in helping shape the possible routes of its future? We often look towards individuals of the past with reverence and strive to be as they were, but how often do we consider what communities of scientists have accomplished?
Daniel is a postdoctoral fellow in the Margolin Lab in the Department of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics at the University of Texas, Houston Medical School. He also teaches as an adjunct professor at the University of Houston-Downtown in the Department of Natural Sciences. In addition to science, he enjoys reading, writing, and film. He can be found on Twitter and his book reviews at Reading 1000 Lives or on Goodreads.