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An army anecdote


The American Library in Paris and going to the Rockefeller Institute
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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My professor, Walter Bauer, wrote me a letter after the... oh, about a year and a half of my being in the army, he wrote me a letter saying a friend of his, Detlev Bronk, is going to be starting a university at the Rockefeller Institute. Now his advice was for me to come back to Boston to complete my medical studies but he suspected that I would be foolish enough to stay in science... or my interest in science and, indeed, I wrote back with gratitude, and it was he who hooked me up with Detlev Bronk and I finally had the opportunity to go to the Rockefeller to get scientific training.

But I can backtrack a bit and say while I was in France, that boredom that I had was a very important issue and, again, like being an autodidact I didn't have any guidance which probably was pretty wasteful but it had other benefits, and one of them was this. There was a thing called the American Library on the Champs-Elysées and it had books never cracked and a good section of scientific books – for example, Cohn and Edsall's book on proteins and peptides and amino acids. And I remember reading that one with great fervor, although it was quite abstract actually. And then, above all, a very signal event occurred. I found a book on immunology. And, if I remember correctly, immunology in medical school was a sort of side-track of the microbiology course, and you got three weeks of serology – what happens when you mix serum of patients who have been immunized and what happens when you get a cloudy reaction or complement fixation or what have you. Well, I read this book in my boredom, as I said, and what struck me was that it was amazing that all the book talked about was antigens, the foreign molecules on viruses, bacteria or even on chemicals, as Landsteiner from the Rockefeller showed, were injected in your body. And it occurred to me that, gee whiz, this doesn't seem to me to be the central issue. The central issue is antibodies. Well, my naïveté was remarkable – my ignorance was even more remarkable – but I had this idea that, look, this book shows this picture of an antibody molecule and it looks like a loaf of bread, a baguette. But that can't really be right. I had no real notion of how big the molecule was, and I said... but I got this idea that maybe I should work on antibodies, because that seemed to be the thing. They were the things that they had discovered in serology which reacted with the foreign molecules, and indeed that was signal for my going to the Rockefeller; it was that that determined that I would begin to work on antibodies, which is what I did.

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, American Library, Champs-Elysées, Proteins, Amino Acids and Peptides, Walter Bauer, Detlev Bronk, Edwin Joseph Cohn, John Edsall

Duration: 2 minutes, 39 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008