One of several letters in which Coburn responded to requests by Lederberg for his recollections of Avery and Griffith. In
this letter, Coburn compared the similarities between the two scientists' personalities.
Number of Image Pages:
1 (82,210 Bytes)
1966-04-20 (April 20, 1966)
Coburn, Alvin F.
Reproduced with permission of the New York Medical College.
Copyright owned by the New York Medical College.
Medical Subject Headings (MeSH):
History of Medicine
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 (November 19, 1965)
Letter from Alvin F. Coburn to Joshua Lederberg (March 21, 1966)
Letter from Joshua Lederberg to Alvin F. Coburn (April 1, 1966)
My delay in answering your letter of April 1 is due to a lack of competence to deal with your inquiry. Yesterday, I had lunch
with Dr. Rene Dubos at the Rockefeller "University". He was in agreement with both the remarks made in your 1955
reprint and also with your suggestion that the "intellectual history of the interaction of these men" should be written
up. However, I well know that I am not the person to do it. In my opinion, nobody could do this more effectively and gracefully
than Rene Dubos.
Actually, interviews with about four persons could supply all facts essential for writing up the proposed bit of history.
My guess is that Fred Griffith thought little of his experiment. The concept of pragmatism in the British Ministry of Health
at that time was quite different from that of the Rockefeller Institute. On the other hand, there is no doubt in my mind of
"how deeply Avery understood the genetic implications". Not only were his restraint and modesty exceptional, but
his vision and insight were phenomenal. The sudden cessation of Avery's work was due to the Cupid's Arrow. An invaluable
assistant, Miss Harriet Taylor, suddenly left his laboratory for Europe to become Mrs. Ephrussi.
One of the extraordinary aspects of the Griffith-Avery story is that the two men were so similar in many respects. This would
impress anybody who knew them both.
To my way of thinking, it will be refreshing for future biologists to learn how Avery's mind rejected Griffith's work
at first. It was a "foreign body", not to be assimilated. But Avery's mind was not closed. Avery had a deep respect
for Griffith and when Avery satisfied himself that Griffith was right, he began his attack on the problem. As you well know,
this was gentle, catholic and devastating to preconceived ideas.
It will be good to learn your reactions to my suggestion that Rene Dubos do the needful. All the best