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The Salvador E. Luria Papers

Politics, Science, and Social Responsibility

[Salvador Luria in his office at MIT]. [ca. 1970s].
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As a young man, Luria witnessed first hand the rise of Fascism in Italy, and his circle of acquaintances included many involved in the anti-fascist movement. Yet he did not join their numbers, he later noted, because he was too naïve and found their abstract Marxist political philosophy unfamiliar and alien. His political interests then, as later, tended to be practical rather than theoretical. Luria dated his serious concern for politics to his move to France in 1938. There, the intensity of everyday political discussions, and the availability of newspapers from all the shades of the political spectrum made politics come alive for him. "The world of refugee politics in Paris was a world of ideological parties, not of meaningful political action," he said, but the French political scene in the late 1930s provided ample sources of political education. By the time he left Paris in 1940 he was "a deeply political individual, a socialist--unattached, without party loyalties or allegiances, but existentially committed to a socialist orientation." From that time, his political commitment was personal and emotional, "kept alive and reinforced mainly by the spectacle of injustice" wherever it occurred.

Luria did not exercise his new sense of political commitment immediately upon arriving in the United States, as he was fully occupied with learning the language and with his budding scientific career. He also felt that in wartime America, political discussions initiated by newcomers might not be warmly received. However, once he had settled into academic life at Indiana University, he again found himself drawn to political issues. While on leave at Cold Spring Harbor during 1945-46, he and his wife Zella found that an American Labor Party candidate was the only opponent available to run for Congress against the Republican boss of Suffolk County, Long Island. The ALP candidate agreed to accept the Democratic nomination provided that he did not have to campaign in person. And so the Lurias toured Long Island seeking votes, speaking with the Irish-American workers at the state hospitals, shopkeepers in the towns, and domestic workers at the large estates. In the election of 1946 their candidate got 37 percent of the vote, a record for local Democrats at the time.

Back in Indiana, Luria became involved in the Progressive Party campaign during the 1948 election. He also joined the University Teachers' Union (UTU), a small group with close ties to the local labor federation and to the powerful State Federation of Teachers. In 1950, when Luria was its president, the UTU supported the successful efforts of the State and County and Municipal Workers Union to organize the university workers. Meanwhile, Luria's support for their cause led to his move to the University of Illinois that year: administrators at IU, irritated by his political activities, decided not to match a pending job offer from Illinois.

At Illinois, the university's chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)--an organization that influenced all aspects of faculty policy, both on campus and in the state legislature--furnished Luria with a new battleground. The AAUP was dominated by conservative faculty at the time, and he and other liberals worked hard to achieve a more balanced representation in the group. By the late 1950s a new national issue, nuclear weapons testing, had claimed the attention of many scientists, including Luria. In 1957 biochemist Linus Pauling drafted and circulated an authoritative statement to the U.S. government protesting weapons tests as dangerous. Luria was one of the first ten scientists to sign the statement, and within several months thousands more had joined him. The anti-testing campaign eventually achieved its aim, and demonstrated that efforts by professionally qualified citizens could carry a weight that larger but less expert groups often lacked. It was a strategy that Luria and his colleagues would use repeatedly during the years of the Vietnam War, though not always with equal success.

Luria's first several years at MIT were fairly quiet politically, apart from his participation in a 1961 protest against a government initiative to create a nationwide system of nuclear attack shelters. By 1965, however, he was actively engaged in protesting the Vietnam War, first with an ad hoc faculty group, then with a standing organization called the Boston Area Faculty Group on Public Issues (BAFGOPI). Along with letters and petitions to legislators and to the editors of major newspapers such as the New York Times, Luria and his Boston-area colleagues used full-page newspaper advertisements including a large number of faculty signatures in support of specific political positions or demands. The Boston group's first ad, in 1965, said, concisely, "Stop the Bombing." Luria later noted that newspaper ads as a political technique were ideal for an academic constituency: they did not require membership in an organization; the operation was relatively inexpensive, if each signer contributed a small amount to the cost of the ad; and ads in major papers were often picked up and reprinted in local papers, adding to their visibility. By the end of the Vietnam conflict, BAFGOPI had developed a large efficient network that could activate the collection of signatures on a hundred or more campuses within one or two days. The group's last major ad--protesting President Nixon's re-election campaign as well as the war--was published in 1972.

Luria continued to speak out against political injustice here and abroad, and against science and technology policies he thought flawed. During the 1970s he also participated in the heated discussions and debates about limiting development of recombinant DNA technologies in the Boston/Cambridge area. The possibility of genetic manipulation across species raised several immediate issues. First, was it safe, or would scientists be creating and releasing dangerous new life-forms? Second, who should control the research--government, committees of scientific experts, private industry, individual researchers? Concerned citizens, including a number of faculty members, speculated about the horrors that might be unleashed by an elitist scientific establishment, while many scientists dismissed these concerns almost entirely. Luria believed the dangers to be very small, but supported the "Cambridge solution": appointment of a representative group of citizens charged with recommending the conditions--including federal guidelines--under which recombinant DNA research could be done in Cambridge. He was criticized by both populists and science purists for supporting such a compromise, but thought it the best option. Though committed to social justice, Luria said, he could not believe that it was achieved by "fighting on idiosyncratic, middle-class issues bolstered by faulty information about hypothetical dangers." Nor, despite his commitment to science, could he be uncritical of it, as though it was a sort of "sacred priesthood before which all other interests and considerations must yield." Should scientists be held responsible for the uses to which their discoveries were put? Luria believed that they should at least feel responsible for informing the government and the public of potential dangers that might arise from the uses of science, just as they actively publicize potential benefits.