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A visit from Leo Szilard


The institutional situation at the Rockefeller Institute
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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Clearly it depended very much on Bronk and his ability to deny any bureaucratic structure. I can speak to this because that ability was in full evidence when the condition for my staying at the Rockefeller came up. I went to him, and you remember I said I was working with Joe Gally mainly; I had another student, Don Olins, who in fact was the man who, with his wife later on, discovered the nucleosome – the part of the chromosome that is the protein part of the chromosome that's so important in its organization and burying the helix. At that time the question was: well, could I stay after I got my degree? Incidentally, it might be worth my saying something about that.

My degree examination had the famous René Dubos, it had a physical chemist Norman Sutin, who then was at Brookhaven, and it had in fact Maclyn McCarty. It had a group of really distinguished scientists but, in a very curious way. It wasn't even very much about antibodies; it was actually about quantum mechanics. I was asked about the de Broglie relationship, which has to do with a certain particle wave thing and calculating a certain wave length for... consistent with... with what was known about quantum mechanics. And I think there was a considerable degree of frustration at that, because most of the people there were not particularly familiar with quantum mechanics, but I think that is an indicate... indication of the way things were at the Rockefeller. Things were just go and flower organically; they didn't have a committed sort of style, and so when it came to the question of could I stay after my degree, I went to see Bronk and asked him, and he came up with a perfectly startling suggestion. He said, 'Yes', if I was willing to take on the post of an assistant dean, then I could do it.

And I remember being shocked and sort of overwhelmed and I said, 'Could I get back to you?' I went home and I remember speaking to Maxine and saying, 'You know, this is ridiculous. I'm not a dean, I don't know anything about it, I don't want to do it, I'm a scientist etc.' She said, 'Shut up and accept.' And I said, 'Why?' She said... I said, 'So what?' She said, 'You know you're going to do the science anyhow, and if this helps that would be good.' So I did accept and I did learn one of the secrets of the system, which was a non-system – namely as an assistant and finally an associate dean I brought material to him one day about a certain candidate person, and when he saw it he became furious. He said, 'Never do that again. Never bring all this stupidity in.' And I had all kinds of, you know – what do you call them?  – CVs and marks and things of that kind. He said, 'That isn't the way we work around here.' I said, 'What... what do you wish, sir? He said, 'Look, is he our kind of person or isn't he? I hold you personally responsible.' And that taught me a great deal about this plastic style, and it was in fact my taking on that that allowed me to continue to do this thing, and in fact finally the curious thing which is worth reflecting on.

I had been working in pure physical chemistry on fluorescence – the excitation of molecules by light to emit another wavelength of light – and I was the recipient of a grant from the National Institutes of Health on fluorescence spectroscopy, of all things, and I was building a fancy spectrofluometer... here we go back to my brazing machine, what have you... what they called an absolute energy recording spectrofluometer, and I had this grant. But the funny thing was that all the work on immunoglobulin was being supported by this grant which just had nothing to do with fluorescence. Of course, we used some fluorescence on antibodies but these days that wouldn't have gone. So the combination of remarkable person-centered ability of Bronk to see creativity in terms of a contingent set of relationships, the fact that the relaxation was very great with the NIH, enabled me to bring... to bring together a bunch of colleagues who were able then to attack this structure. So there we went, and I must say that was a remarkably intensive period of about four years in which we went after chain by chain – first the light chain, then the heavy chain, of the antibody – and it was remarkable.

US biologist Gerald Edelman (1929-2014) successfully constructed a precise model of an antibody, a protein used by the body to neutralise harmful bacteria or viruses and it was this work that won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 jointly with Rodney R Porter. He then turned his attention to neuroscience, focusing on neural Darwinism, an influential theory of brain function.

Listeners: Ralph J. Greenspan

Dr. Greenspan has worked on the genetic and neurobiological basis of behavior in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) almost since the inception of the field, studying with one of its founders, Jeffery Hall, at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where he received his Ph.D. in biology in 1979. He subsequently taught and conducted research at Princeton University and New York University where he ran the W.M. Keck Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology, relocating to San Diego in 1997 to become a Senior Fellow in Experimental Neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute. Dr. Greenspan’s research accomplishments include studies of physiological and behavioral consequences of mutations in a neurotransmitter system affecting one of the brain's principal chemical signals, studies making highly localized genetic alterations in the nervous system to alter behavior, molecular identification of genes causing naturally occurring variation in behavior, and the demonstration that the fly has sleep-like and attention-like behavior similar to that of mammals. Dr. Greenspan has been awarded fellowships from the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation, the Searle Scholars Program, the McKnight Foundation, the Sloan Foundation and the Klingenstein Foundation. In addition to authoring research papers in journals such as "Science", "Nature", "Cell", "Neuron", and "Current Biology", he is also author of an article on the subject of genes and behavior for "Scientific American" and several books, including "Genetic Neurobiology" with Jeffrey Hall and William Harris, "Flexibility and Constraint in Behavioral Systems" with C.P. Kyriacou, and "Fly Pushing: The Theory and Practice of Drosophila Genetics", which has become a standard work in all fruit fly laboratories.

Tags: Rockefeller Institute, Detlev Bronk, Joe Gally, Don Olins, René Dubos, Norman Sutin, Maclyn McCarty

Duration: 4 minutes, 40 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008