One of several letters in which Coburn responded to requests by Lederberg for his recollections of Avery and Griffith. With
this letter, Coburn enclosed a copy of Rene Dubos' obituary of Avery and a photograph of Griffith with his dog, Bobby.
Number of Image Pages:
2 (151,809 Bytes)
1965-11-19 (November 19, 1965)
Coburn, Alvin F.
Reproduced with permission of the New York Medical College.
Copyright owned by the New York Medical College.
Medical Subject Headings (MeSH):
Shifting Focus: Early Work on Bacterial Transformation, 1928-1940
After the Discovery: The Transforming Principle's Reception by the Scientific Community
Letter from Alvin F. Coburn to Oswald T. Avery (May 25, 1943)
[Fred Griffith and "Bobby"] 
Letter from Alvin F. Coburn to Joshua Lederberg (September 28, 1965)
[Oswald T. Avery] [March 1943]
[Avery with Alvin Coburn's son, Tim] [March 1943]
Letter from Alvin F. Coburn to Joshua Lederberg (November 9, 1965)
Letter from Alvin F. Coburn to Joshua Lederberg (March 21, 1966)
Letter from Joshua Lederberg to Alvin F. Coburn (April 1, 1966)
Letter from Alvin F. Coburn to Joshua Lederberg (April 20, 1966)
I am attaching a little statement that R. J. Dubos published about Avery in 1956 shortly after his death.
Enclosed is a picture copied from a lantern slide. This shows Avery about an hour after he told me the whole story of the
transforming factor and described his evidence that the responsible agent was deoxyribonucleic acid. You will note the smile
on Avery's face and the cigarette in his right hand. The explanation of this cigarette is that the snapshot was made on
Sunday after lunch at our home in Bedford, New York. On any other day of the week there would probably have been a platinum
loop in the position occupied by the cigarette. The quiet contentment of Avery on that Sunday gave the message "I've
discovered a phenomenon of Nature so exquisitely beautiful that I dare not talk about it except to those with whom I commune".
I also enclose a picture copied from a lantern slide made a few years after Fred Griffith had done his original work on transformation.
This was taken of the "leprechaun" (this tiny man seemed one to me perhaps because he hardly ever spoke above a whisper)
with his Irish Terrier, Bobby, on the Downs near Brighton, England. Believe it or not, Griffith, who was one of England's
most conservative scientist, built himself a home in Brighton more modern in architecture than anything in Beverly Hills.
As you probably know, Griffith and his good man Friday (Scott) were killed by the direct hit of a bomb just after London was
presumably freed of bombing. The only survivor was Bobby, shown in this picture.
In closing, let me say that being unable to present Avery with the Legion of Honor, I gave him a copy of this poor snapshot
of Fred Griffith, which he always kept on his desk in front of him from 1942 to 1955.
Alvin F. Coburn, M.D.
[Handwritten note: To the best of my knowledge Fess Avery and Fred Griffith never met.]
"Avery was at that time suffering from Graves's disease and soon was compelled to leave the laboratory for some six
months. When he returned in the fall of 1932 new evidence had come to light in favor of Griffith's claims; the results
had been duplicated by Neufeld in Germany and at the Rockefeller Institute Hospital by M. H. Dawson. It was with reluctance
that Avery eventually accepted that pneumococci could be made at will to undergo transmissible hereditary changes
in immunological specificity. But once he had accepted the new phenomenon he immediately visualized its far reaching implications
not only for bacteriology and genetics, but also for general biology and medicine. He was then approaching 60 years of age
and many felt that he had shot his bolt. Yet it was during this last phase of his life, and in part after his official retirement,
that he made the discovery that may well prove to be his most important achievement -- indeed one of the milestones of experimental
He first proceeded to separate from capsulated pneumococci a soluble fraction capable of bringing about the change of type
in vitro. Enlisting as he had so often done in the past the enthusiastic interest of younger collaborators, he soon obtained
a highly purified fraction that could transfer to non-capsulated variants and to their progeny the hereditary property to
produce the capsular polysaccharide of the strain used for the preparation of the extract. The climax
of this study, and of his scientific career; was the demonstration that the substance responsible for the hereditary alteration
of the cell was a deoxyribonucleic acid."