Subject: Review of Dubos's book just received: "The Professor, the Institute, and DNA", Rockefeller University
This book was first brought to my attention by Abe Eisenstark a few months ago. The press responded with a mail audit inquiry
when I wrote them about it;
and the book just arrived on my order.
I found the book much more benign about Avery than I think Dubos is in his PRS biography. It is particularly strong in its
sensitivity to the constructive aspects of the atmosphere at Rockefeller and the importance of its traditions and devices
for interdisciplinary communication. He especially stresses that Rockefeller did not follow the German pattern of an institute
built around a single man. Instead (page 33) the institute was a commonwealth of scholars. In fact, I believe that there is
still no departmental organization at the Rockefeller University.
Page 44. He stresses the special role of pure chemistry, but the framework in which interdisciplinary thinking was encouraged.
He thinks Jacques Loeb was rather narrow minded in his mechanistic conception of life but does view the DNA story as an indication
of it. The M.D.-Ph.D. tension is mentioned at several places but, for example, page 46.
Page 47. Many scientists of the earlier part of this century were the sons of
Protestant clergymen. (I wonder, for somewhat later period, about the emphasis on the sons of Jewish clergymen). Anyhow,
this was a strong element in Avery's biography. However, it appears generally rather superficial and does not have enough
knowledge of his private life to be able to comment very meaningfully on such points as his bachelorhood. Something rather
strange must have happened
to this man between his days at college when he was a great public debater and
his pathological reticence in later life. In fact, page 66, one does know about
his thyroid problems, 1933 (or 1934?). He was even more withdrawn after that. In his other biography Dubois made a great deal
about his thyroid illness having taken him out of the laboratory during the critical time that Griffith's work was investigated.
Is there something not quite honest about blurring that over in the present version? Page 69. Dubois. seems to take graphology
quite seriously! Page 71. "He made little effort to keep up with the details of other fields of science, let alone with
other intellectual disciplines". "I was often surprised and at times almost shocked by the fact that his range of
scientific information was not as broad as could have been assumed from his fame and from the variety and magnitude of his
scientific achievements. Furthermore, his imagination did not seem to me of the kind that soars far above the concrete facts
revealed by straightforward observation or by simple laboratory experiments". But then there is later some apology for
this. This does not seem quite consistent with what he says later on about, page 152, Avery's efforts to read about kinetics.
This does seem to be an explicit anti-erudition. Page 79. "He had no taste for concepts that did not lead to experimentation".
Chapter 10 is on bacterial variability. This is quite brief and is certainly surpassed by "The Bacterial Cell". There
is a little more detail about the acceptance of Griffith in Avery's laboratory.
Page 134. Dubos discusses how Griffith might have discovered transformation and imputes it to an accident. I do not think
he has read Griffith's paper very carefully. I think that Griffith already knew that immunity played a very significant
role in the selection of variance, and I think it is rather clear that he used mice that had been inoculated with killed smooth
cells as a way of establishing a particular immune state, the antibody in which he believed would induce resistance.
Page 135. He criticizes Griffith for saying that the killed S cells functioned "as a pabulum" and claims that "what
happens in reality is that the gene corresponding to type 2 replaces the gene . . . " In fact, again a careful reading
of Griffith shows that he very clearly understood the difference between the phenotype and the fact that there needed to be
an underlying hereditary factor even if he did not use the contemporary language for it.
It is notable that Dubois does not quote Olby - at least I did not notice it and the name is not in the index - and in fact
the introduction, page 3, is quite explicit that he had " consulted only a few of these primary documents and have derived
most of my information from semi-official secondary sources and from persons . . . " He could also have made it clearer
that there are essentially no letters or correspondence surviving of Avery unless perhaps he, Dubois, himself has retained
copies of them.
Page 136. He asserts that Topley and Wilson 1933 "made only hesitant mention
of Griffith". I should check on that.
Page 145. "Prick your own bubble": this is really anxiety about exposure and
the possibility of being found wrong.
149-150. Scientific puritanism. "Generally when something as important as this
is found, there is a concentration of effort to the exclusion of other avenues
of research". This is preemption.
Chapter 12 is a personal analysis of Avery and in many respects this is the most disappointing of all.
Page 152. There is a note that Hotchkiss has retained the collection of Avery's notes on the genetic interpretations of
transformation. Dubois himself really passes by the essence of the discovery; its intellectual. He suggests that perhaps MacCarty
will write that. I hope so.
This is a puzzling book. I suspect that it is gone through several drafts and that there is an earlier manuscript that would
be much more interesting to read but that Dubois decided not to publish.
I should have injected before: page 155. Avery does take Stent to task for his implication that the Avery paper was "premature"
and shows many counter-examples to the little impact on genetics that Stent implies. I am a little surprised he does not include
my own work on E. coli recombination in the list - work that he does refer to later on in his discussion. Perhaps he simply
has overlooked the very brief comments that I have published on the genesis of that work -. I thought I had sent him a reprint
of that brief letter to Wyatt, but I am not too surprised that that gets lost in the shuffle in the work of this particular
kind. The book is built around his own recollections and history and is no better a job of scholarship than many of the works
he has written since 1945 - in stark contrast to "The Bacterial Cell".
On the other hand, the book is still a very valuable document in the light of Dubois's personal relationship to Avery.
He says nothing whatsoever of his own history, his disappointments about the development of antibiotics and so forth. It would
not have to have been there but I guess it is no surprise that Waxman is not listed in the index either.