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Deciding to return to Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring


Organising one of Mendel's anniversary symposia
Jan Klein Scientist
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So I was more interested in the H2 system to continue. In 1965 was the hundredth year anniversary of Mendel's presentation of his results on... well results that were the foundation of modern genetics. And this anniversary was to be celebrated in Czechoslovakia. Things have changed since the meantime... Lysenko, at least in Czechoslovakia was out, although it persisted in some circles, but in general you could say, well it's not true what he was saying. The sign of it was that I was asked in early 1965 by the Rudé Právo, the official newspaper of the Communist party to contribute an article on Mendel, which I did. And it was entitled 'Mendel's return' and they really let me say whatever I wanted and I didn't mince words, saying that what has happened was a tragedy and that it's good that Mendel can be back in his own country. Anyway there was the meeting and the meeting... the anniversary and there was a celebration in Prague and Brno, which would be a series of symposia. And I was asked to organise one of these symposia on somatics of genetics. It was very interesting experience. I could invite some of the people that I wanted to meet for a long time. Among them was Len Herzenberg from Stanford University who tried to work on the F1 hybrid, the H2 heterozygote system in tissue culture rather than on tumors in vivo in mice, in vitro. So I was very anxious to hear what he has to say and so he was invited, he came. We spent a nice evening together with him and Lee Herzenberg, his wife. Nice evening in a place which I should have known, but I didn't know. It was a bar and... which was frequented by foreigners. It was... well, I think that's enough.  And during that discussion Göran Möller and some other Swedes came to our table and we... somehow it got into politics and we were talking about politics and they were asking questions. And I always was as outspoken as I always was. I was telling them what I thought about things. We came out. They sorted us. Suddenly we were surrounded by plain clothed men, but police or whatever you want to call them, state police. The foreigners were sent off and I was taken... apparently they were simply, they had a listening device under each table and they were listening to what was said and they didn't like what was said obviously. So I was for a while in trouble and... but I think it was mainly thanks to Hašek again, it was somehow put off the table and placed under the carpet.

Then Herzenberg invited me to come to Stanford as a kind of a post doc and the next year... this was '65 so in 1966 I went to Stanford. I worked. I thought I was going to a lab that was working on tumor variants in vitro. But I came and I was surprised to learn that, oh no we are not doing that anymore. The whole lab was focused on allotypes, which were antigens in serum proteins and immunoglobulins basically in these... in mice. And so I did kind of a compromise of.. I had two papers published from that year. One was on allotypes and one was on H2, not variants but H2. So it was a reasonable compromise for both of us. It worked very nicely and I had on the trip back, I toured the H2 labs... Stimpfling, Snell, Shreffler and so on. Then I went back. This was '66, '67... and '67 was the time when things began to change in Czechoslovakia politically.

Born in 1936, Jan Klein is a Czech-American immunologist who co-founded the modern science of immunogenetics – key to understanding illness and disease. He is the author or co-author of over 560 scientific publications and of seven books including 'Where Do We Come From?' which examines the molecular evolution of humans. He graduated from the Charles University at Prague in 1955, and received his MS in Botany from the same school in 1958. From 1977 to his retirement in 2004, he was the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Biology at Tübingen, Germany.

Listeners: Colm O'hUigin

Colm O'hUigin is a senior staff scientist at the US National Cancer Institute. He received his BA, MSc and PhD at the Genetics Department of Trinity College, Dublin where he later returned as a lecturer. He has held appointments at the Center for Population and Demographic Genetics, UT Houston, and at the University of Cambridge. As an EMBO fellow, he moved in 1990 to the Max Planck Institute for Biology in Tübingen, Germany to work with Jan Klein and lead a research group studying the evolutionary origins of immune molecules, of teeth, trypanosomes and of species.

Tags: Rudé Právo, Communist party, H2 heterozygote, H2 system, allotypes, Czechoslovakia, Stanford, Milan Hašek, Gregor Johann Mendel, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, Göran Möller, Donald C Shreffler, George Snell, DC Shreffler, Len Herzenberg, Lee Herzenberg, Leonard Arthur Herzenberg

Duration: 5 minutes, 59 seconds

Date story recorded: August 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008