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The Joshua Lederberg Papers

Letter from James D. Watson to Joshua Lederberg Annotation pdf (171,712 Bytes) transcript of pdf
Letter from James D. Watson to Joshua Lederberg
Item is handwritten.
Number of Image Pages:
4 (171,712 Bytes)
1957-04-03 (April 3, 1957)
Watson, James D.
Lederberg, Joshua
Reproduced with permission of James D. Watson.
Lederberg Grouping: No Epoch
Box Number: 71
Folder Number: 12
Unique Identifier:
Accession Number:
Document Type:
Letters (correspondence)
Physical Condition:
Series: Research
SubSeries: Genetics
SubSubSeries: University of Wisconsin
SubSubSubSeries: Correspondence
Folder: Harvard University, 1957-1958
Wednesday April 3
Dear Joshua
I have been talking earlier this evening with Kenneth Thimann. He told me of his conversation with you in New York. I was disappointed in that it appears that you may decide to go to Berkeley without first coming here to look us over. I think this would be a mistake but of course I'm terribly prejudiced in favor of your coming here. Since, however, I have always had a very favorable impression of Berkeley, I cannot argue that you are going to an average or even only good environment. But I can say very sincerely that I believe Harvard to be a much finer university, both in a human way and also scientifically.
Harvard is in some ways very much like the English Cambridge -- Almost everything about it argues for its greatness and even when almost everything goes wrong, it does not take much to set it right. Biology I believe is a case in point -- There is little point in denying that it has not been up to decent standards -- It muddled along and then decided to muddle some more. That you were not offered a decent position here some 5 years ago is a sorry reflection on its incompetence. But there is absolutely no doubt that the administration is out to correct this mess and will do everything in its power to bring here the best people it can lay its hands on. Bundy (our young and very competent Dean) wants to make this the best Biology Department in this country and I feel
that this will happen -- the only question is how soon. We now have a half empty building and 8 professors over 63 -- So everything will soon change and I think it would be a great mistake not to come here because of the fact that some of these ancient [?] men are in some respects limited. What will happen here will be decided by what the younger people do and I hope very much that we concentrate on "growth" in a very broad sense -- Already we have a quite decent nucleus in George Wald, John Edsall, and Kenneth Thimann. There is also the possibility that Poppenheimer will be here, if it matters -- I also have hopes that Asmov [?] Mitchion can be induced to leave England and provide us with some sparkle in Embryology.
The strongest aspect of the environment here, however, are the chemists -- The Chemistry Department is really quite fantastic and for me this counts considerably -- I think there is absolutely no doubt that we have the best group of chemists in the world, perhaps not in quantity, But certainly in quality -- There is no chemist like Woodward, a person whom I trust you would enjoy considerably. No one here possesses empires like those in Berkeley but nevertheless something happens here. As a biologist I cannot imagine a better group than Westheimer, Doty, Konrad Bloch, and Bill Moffit, to bother with our problems.
There is also the large group connected with the Medical School. You know of course that Bernie Davis is coming here and he shall only be a 20 minute ride away. And also to be considered is Albert Coons -- at first site [sic] perhaps a strange recluse, but really quite competent and with a damn good talent for doing the right experiment. Then in Paul Zimenchik's group at
Mass. General you have the most productive groups now messing with protein synthesis -- So from mind I think we can hold our own against the Berkeley of the present or the future.
Of course you will not find a large group of geneticists, such as Madison or Berkeley possesses. But honestly I do not think this is a disadvantage to our research -- I do not regard genetics as an end in itself -- I am basically interested in the cell as a whole (I know this sounds trite) and for most of this work, there is little need, to call in the advice of formal geneticists -- Obviously an introductory course in genetics must be taught but for the students of the next 20 years, it will be far better to concentrate on teaching them what will be necessary to effectively study the various manifestations of growth -- this I suspect will be good doses of microbial genetics, modern embryology and immunology, and biochemistry. That is I feel we must be very strong in these fields if we are really to be the leaders of the next 20 years. John Edsall and I are now setting up labs for decent macromolecular proteins and nucleic acid chemistry and these should be operating in about 1 year. In size they may not rival the Virus [?] Laboratory but I hope that they will have some of its better features --
I could go on but I think that there is probably little point. I only wish to say how much I hope you decide to come here for a few days and look over Harvard. As
I said in my earlier letter to you, there is something splendid about the general atmosphere and I think in the long run, you would enjoy Harvard far more than the University of California -- In some ways, this is still a small school and you would be able to be far more personal in your feelings than a general antipathy towards the regents at California would permit. Admittedly we have a large building but it is still dwarfed by "Life Sciences" and if you come here you shall definitely feel that you are in the midst of things -- At Berkeley to do this one must grow an Empire and I wonder if it is really fun.
But then again I'm prejudiced
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Annotation by Joshua Lederberg:
KW:  Kenneth Thimann; recruitment to Harvard (vs. Stanford);

jl 9/29/01