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Lwoff's laboratory


André Lwoff
François Jacob Scientist
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André Lwoff was particularly generous, at least with me. André Lwoff really was a headstrong guy, meaning that he had his friends and his enemies. If you were his enemy, you needed to be very careful because he would make nasty remarks which cost him a lot in his life. He said to some very important people... in particular, at one stage, he wanted to be a lecturer at the Collège de France and there was this guy called Courier, who was both lecturer at the Collège de France, secretary whatever at the Academy and I don't know what else. He was everything. And Lwoff didn't like him. And not only did he not like him, but he let him know that he didn't. And people don't really like to be told that way. Which means that with his straightforward manner of telling people, 'you're all idiots', people don't really like that, and he ended up a little stuck. He never became lecturer at the Collège specifically because of that. Which means that when they came to get me to go to the Collège, I thought, I have to go see André and see what he thinks. And he was really generous then. I said, 'Well, Sir, I know that you have had problems' – he'd applied twice, got rejected twice, even though he was a much superior man to the one they took – 'I know that you have had some small problems with the Collège. I am being offered a chair at the Collège. I won't go if you don't approve'. He said, 'Of course, go ahead, etc.', very well. But it wasn't easy.

[Q] And you say that with you he has shown great generosity?

Very, very generous. Really. He always pushed me and always helped me. Incredible.

[Q] And that you were sort of a son to him?

A little, I think.

[Q] We get the impression that it was someone that didn't accept bad quality, whether it was of thought or of behaviour? Or of speech. He was very attached to language.

Yes, that's right. But he could be unbearable. Because he really did tell quite a few people what he thought of them. And in particular, a guy whose name I won't say because there really is no need to mention it, but who is an appalling idiot. And he said to him... it's an absolutely incredible story. They were in a CNRS commission and the guy in question, they are examining his lab so he leaves. André Lwoff says what he thinks of it. And on that note the guy comes back in. And straight away, his neighbour tells him what was said. And he says to Lwoff, 'Sir, I ought to slap you'. 'Very well, Sir, you will have my witnesses in the morning'. And the guy disappeared.

André Lwoff était particulièrement généreux, en tous cas avec moi. André Lwoff était un type très entier. C'est-à-dire il avait ses copains et ses ennemis. Si on était son ennemi, il fallait faire très attention parce qu'il lançait des vacheries qui lui ont beaucoup coûté dans sa vie. Il a dit à des personnages très... En particulier, à une époque, il voulait être professeur au Collège de France et il y avait un type qui s'appelait Courier, qui était à la fois professeur au Collège de France, secrétaire perpete de l'Académie et je ne sais plus quoi. Il était tout quoi. Et Lwoff ne l'aimait pas. Et non seulement, il ne l'aimait pas, mais il lui laissait sentir. Et les autres n'aiment pas tellement ça qu'on leur dise comme ça. Ce qui fait qu'il a, par sa franchise, à dire aux gens: vous êtes des cons, les gens n'aiment pas tellement, et il s'est fait un peu coincé. En particulier, il n'a pas été prof au Collège à cause de ça. Ce qui fait que quand moi on est venu me chercher pour aller au Collège, je me suis dit, 'Il faut d'abord que j'aille voir André ce qu'il en pense'. Et alors là, il a été formidablement généreux. J'ai dit, 'Voilà, monsieur, je sais que vous avez eu des ennuis' – il s'était présenté deux fois, il avait été collé deux fois, et il était quand même un type très supérieur au gars qui a été pris – 'Je sais que vous avez eu des petits ennuis au Collège'. On me propose une chaire au Collège. Je n'irai que si vous en êtes d'accord. Il m'a dit, 'Bien sûr, allez-y, etc.' Bon très bien. Mais ce n'était pas évident.

[Q] Et avec vous, vous dites qu'il a été d'une générosité... Très très généreux.

Oui, vraiment. Il m'a toujours poussé et et il m'a toujours aidé. Formidable.

[Q] Et qu'il vous considérait un peu comme son fils.

Un peu je crois, je pense.

[Q] On a l'impression que c'était quelqu'un qui ne tolérait pas une mauvaise qualité, ou de pensée, ou de comportement? Ou de langue. Il tenait beaucoup à la langue.

Oui, non c'est vrai. Mais il pouvait être insupportable. Parce qu'il a vraiment dit à beaucoup de gens ce qu'il pensait d'eux. Et en particulier, un type dont je ne vous dirai pas son nom, parce que c'est pas la peine de le garder, mais qui était un sinistre con. Et il lui a dit... Il y a une histoire absolument formidable. Ils étaient tous les deux dans une commission du CNRS et le gars en question, on examine son labo donc il sort. André Lwoff dit ce qu'il pense. Et là... dessus, l'autre rentre. Et immédiatement évidemment, son voisin lui dit ce qui s'est dit. Et il dit à Lwoff, 'Monsieur, je devrais vous gifler'. 'Très bien, Monsieur, vous aurez mes témoins le lendemain'. Et l'autre a disparu.

François Jacob (1920-2013) was a French biochemist whose work has led to advances in the understanding of the ways in which genes are controlled. In 1965 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, together with Jacque Monod and André Lwoff, for his contribution to the field of biochemistry. His later work included studies on gene control and on embryogenesis. Besides the Nobel Prize, he also received the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science for 1996 and was elected a member of the French Academy in 1996.

Listeners: Michel Morange

Michel Morange est généticien et professeur à L'Université Paris VI ainsi qu'à l'Ecole Normale Supérieure où il dirige le Centre Cavaillès d'Histoire et de Philosophie des Sciences. Après l'obtention d'une license en Biochimie ainsi que de deux Doctorats, l'un en Biochimie, l'autre en Histoire et Philosophie des Sciences, il rejoint le laboratoire de Génétique Moléculaire dirigé par le Professeur François Jacob à l'Institut Pasteur. Ses principaux travaux de recherche se sont portés sur l'Histoire de la Biologie au XXème siècle, la naissance et le développement de la Biologie Moléculaire, ses transformations récentes et ses interactions avec les autres disciplines biologiques. Auteur de "La Part des Gènes" ainsi que de "Histoire de la Biologie Moléculaire", il est spécialiste de la structure, de la fonction et de l'ingénerie des protéines.

Michel Morange is a professor of Biology and Director of the Centre Cavaillès of History and Philosophy of Science at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. After having obtained a Bachelor in biochemistry and two PhDs, one in Biochemistry, the other in History and Philosophy of Science, he went on to join the research unit of Molecular Genetics headed by François Jacob, in the Department of Molecular Biology at the Pasteur Institute, Paris. Together with Olivier Bensaude, he discovered that Heat Shock Proteins are specifically expressed on the onset of the mouse zygotic genome activation. Since then he has been working on the properties of Heat Shock Proteins, their role in aggregation and on the regulation of expression of these proteins during mouse embryogenesis. He is the author of 'A History of Molecular Biology' and 'The Misunderstood Gene'.

Tags: Collège de France, André Lwoff

Duration: 3 minutes, 6 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008