Original Repository: Stanford University Libraries. Department of Special Collections and University Archives. Arthur Kornberg Papers
This item is in the public domain. It may be used without permission.
The Synthesis of DNA, 1953-1959
January 27, 1958
You can imagine what a year this has been for us. In the same interval that we spent one month in Europe and the again another
four in Australia and there and back, we've faced this complex of decision-making, which has been even more involved probably
than you know. You will understand that I am reluctant to engage myself in any further bout of negotiations. However, I am
eager to encourage your and Stanford's interest in genetics, and to offer my views on organization and personnel, if for
no other reason than the impact of your actions on the whole Bay Area environment. As to my own availability I can only say
that I am not yet by any means legally bound to any course of action, and I can visualize a pattern of circumstances during
the next several months at Madison, Berkeley and Stanford that could bring me into your proposal. Having said this, I would
like to step into the role of an 'objective' consultant, and leave it to you to construct a tangible plan from these
ideas. For my own part, however, there is not very much leeway of time. After a very long drawn out courtship, conditioned
partly by problems of laboratory housing, partly by the layers of hierarchy, Berkeley is renewing its proposals, and some
firm decisions will have to be made in eight or ten weeks. It would complicate my life immeasurably to prolong after that
time. Is there any chance of your coming to Madison earlier in March? I will do the legwork with the Enzyme Institute if
your own schedule will allow a change of date. (But we are still chasing each other around the world and my Haverford date
is the week of March 11. Or could we meet for, say, half-a-day at Midway airport (to name a roundtrip we can both easily
make in one day)?
Let me interject one more point: making a decision among several alternatives is difficult enough without compounding their
interactions. I think you should know the details of my current situation, e.g. that my present salary is 12.5 may save you
a bit of time, but I don't think I should go into the details of Berkeley's offer, as I have not here beyond putting
on the record the continuity of their interest. I would beg you to keep your own counsels on our affairs lest you put me
in an extremely awkward position, and I will count on the same, of course, for any slanders I may make later on.
You already know my basic approach to medical genetics, and the type of program which my memorandum outlined is evolving here.
The Medical Genetics Dept. now consists of Newton Morton and myself. He is a rather unusual product of the biometrical school
of human genetics, insofar as he is also eager to dabble in the laboratory, and he is doing some work, for example, on the
chemical pathology of spherocytosis and of muscular dystrophy in man and in chickens. We are also in the throes of another
appointment, ultimately aimed at some strength in clinical genetics and in the genetics of somatic cells; if this succeeds,
the department will be on its feet to the point where substitution of single members would not spoil its continuity.
The main point of a departmental evolution, the one thing we can do this way that was not possible within the framework of
the Genetics Department is training geneticists for medical schools. We hope that ultimately a residency under medicine might
even be established in this field, and we already have evidence of very strong interest in having a post-graduate (i.e. post-N.D.)
program. The products of such a program are badly needed to staff the number of schools which have no genetics at all, and
which are waking up to the lack. (It also happens that there would be some distinct research advantages to this liasion, but
this is a tactical situation, not necessarily generally important, though it was a strong impulse for me).
The program is predicated on the Wisconsin situation-- that we have a medical school already in an academic context, and that
we already have a strong genetics program on the same campus. We concluded that competent training in genetics requires a
much broader base than human genetics alone, even for practitioners whose main preoccupation later on will be clinical. (This
for the same reason that you teach biochemistry, not human biochemistry).
The training aspect aside, there is no compelling reason in principle why a genetics department must be in the medical school
and not another division. However, it is no less logical a situation than any other, and if the research strength at some
point is concentrated at the medical school, then genetics can well go there too.
You've noticed that I've said very little about teaching genetics to medical students. I'd want more experience
on this point, but frankly this is the least important function. I am not too hopeful that a dozen lectures, to students
not already prepared by past training and by constant restimulation from the whole medical faculty, are going to be very useful.
Hogben recently sent an article into the Jour. Med. Educ. on the subject his point was that clinical genetics, of relatively
rare afflictions, is quite unimportant compared to the necessity of genetic insight for the understanding of the meaning of
'aetiology'. And with this I heartily agree. So I feel that the function of a medical genetics department is for
the education of the faculty more than the students, except insofar as these become the faculty of tomorrow. I suspect (subject
to more experience) that the place for genetics in medical education is early in the premedical curriculum, next to chemistry
and physics, and that it should come out in the medical course all over the map, just as biochemistry does. For the budding
academic MD's, we might well have more advanced courses, of course. (I won't take time here to go into the whole
question of training for medical research, botched up as it is now). But this is one of my keenest concerns in education,
the only administrative question I get much steamed up about, and perhaps the other important reason for my leaning to the
medical school here.)
Genetic counseling is in such a primitive stage that we decided here to avoid it like sin. Much of the need for it should
disappear when we train more physicians who know what a chromosome is. We are of course willing to deal with practitioners
who ask for more detailed information (usually literature) to help them cope with a particular situation, but we have avoided
direct dealings with patients. To do counseling at all well would require a tremendous staff; perhaps what we'd need
is a school for genetic (cg. psychiatric) social workers. Considering how poorly even most professional people understand,
elementary probability ("well, since your first child had the condition, and its recessive, your next one is less likely
to be!")I think that most genetic advice must be quite misleading unless it is part of the whole pattern of medical care.
Frankly, I am not altogether sure whether Stanford should emulate Wisconsin in establishing a genetics department (and I would
call it that rather than Medical Genetics unless there's other good reason) unless it can get a fair amount of money for
staff. The difference is the breadth of the base. Between your group and Biology, you will have considerable strength in
genetics, but it is highly concentrated on microorganisms, and one would like to see some Drosophilists and mousemen in the
picture. I can visualize the following courses of action:
1) A comprehensive Department of Genetics: should comprise at least two men: one preferably a mammalogist (vie. inbred mice),
the other of biometrical-clinical orientations. In this picture, I would be, topically at least, superfluous, which is to
say one more item of cost.
2) A less ambitious program which did not aim, at first, at the postgraduate training aims. This might take the form, for
example, of reorganizing a single Department of Biochemistry & Genetics. You are the one person to whom this should not
sound absurd! I have in mind that chemical genetics (DNA) plus genetic chemistry (individuality) encompass much of the important
principles of both subjects, not to mention the particular interests of yourself, your group and me.
I am not sure which of these I would personally prefer if I had the choice. If the funds were so readily available that I
did not have to take too much time raising them, I suppose (1), insofar as there can be some advantages (can you name them?)
in the freedom of action of a chairmanship. But (1) would be much less appealing if it put some distance between us. Perhaps
some compromise between (1) and (2) can be thought of. One of my points is that I would not be attracted to the chairmanship
of a group where the balance of growth needs vs. available resources was such that it would take too much of my time. Any
program ought to be realistically conceived in relation to those resources.
After all, Art, you are (to my mind) Stanford's most valuable asset. It is perfectly plain how uniquely your talents
and interests complement mine -- my most cogent dissatisfaction with Wisconsin is that I could not succeed in working out
a long lasting biochemical collaboration, which I so badly need. (I hope this was mainly because my very good friends among
the biochemists have been preoccupied with other lines of work, though Van Potter is moving in a more interesting direction
lately.) I have been trying very hard to move my genetic work in a direction to fit my own prescriptions (at Baltimore) but
have not had much encouragement with E. coli. Just since last week, I've been playing with Hemophilus, and find this
a much more manageable system than I had supposed. My immediate concern is to familiarize myself with one system of dna-transduction
that does work, to have a better foundation with the attempts with E. coli. Failing that, I have in mind to 'mix the
systems' to see if there is some obvious non-cellbound impediment in E. coli; if that fails too, I may even see if some
more interesting to give up our investment in coli.
A propos biophysics, I hope we have a chance to discuss this before you make a firm bid. Benzer is a very talented and entertaining
fellow; I am not sure (just that, he might be) that he would be my first choice as a bio-physicist. (Perhaps that doesn't
matter at all in a school that doesn't know the difference between Bacteriology and Biochemistry.) His achievements have
been the result of fantastic concentration on narrow tissues, and he still shows astonishing naivete in conversation on almost
anything he is not immediately concerned with. This is easily rationalized: he was trained as a physicist, has a good head,
but no particular depth in biology, and he has involved himself in problems that make no very direct use of his physics.
All this can (and should) well be read as a strong endorsement. Still, it is rather pointed that he has worked some years
without graduate students, or even in effect, postdoctoral fellows, and I trust that any decisions you make will keep the
question of leadership potential in mind. If that function would still rest with Kaplan, you might be able to afford what
might be called an appointment of staff instead of line.
The rub is that I'm hard put to suggest anyone apter! Perhaps Novick (disregarding his overlap with Mel, which is probably
temporary). If that thought could have any effect, you'd have to give Aaron some notice of it fairly soon, since us trying
to decide between Dartmouth and LaJolla, both of which are distinctly less attractive than Stanford would be. What is biophysics
The notion of concentrating on DNA as a theme is irresistible to me. Do you have anyone at Stanford who'd be an opposite
number to say Schachman? Or would he function adequately just where he is? Have you though about Alex Rich? Or even Jim
To revert to (1) and (2), the financing of (1) might not be so very difficult in the short run. We started Morton off by means
of a fairly small grant from Rockefeller, and I have the feeling that (barring some unknown personal discriminations) Stanford
could get $100,000 or so from them to set off such a department. (Genetics happens to be one of Weaver's pets, and for
good reason!) Furthermore, genetics is one of the subjects specifically named by the PHS as an area for award of 'training
grants' and a well-thought-out program ought to elicit perhaps 25-30,000 a year for four or five years at least, not including
some use of this for new staff. Stanford would, of course, have to show a substantial contribution to match. The trouble
with this is just the timing, but if Stanford has some funds for reinsurance, it might be gotten underway. Stanford would
also have to be able to make a commitment to pick up the tab for tenure salaries at the expiration of these initial grants.
Thinking about all the letter-writing and phone-calls all this would mean again makes me lean strongly back to (2).
This has been quite a bout of logorrhea, sane of it awkwardly written, but the next best thing to a tete-a-tete. Why don't
we agree to have one. I can be in Chicago between noon and suppertime almost any day you care to name. The trouble with
going all the way to St. Louis or vice or versa is that, taking account of the connections, it would work out to not less
than a two-day trip, and I would have to make more involved plans a/c the continuity of my lab work. After Feb. 1, I'll
be teaching Tu and Th; Wednesday would be the best day(or weekend). For your part, you might be able to route your next trip
East through Chicago, and save l-way that way.
If these schemes materialize very far, I will have to tell Jenkins (at Berkeley) about them, in all candor. He would be deeply
hurt if he heard about them, at least any participation on my part in them, from anyone but myself. I am relying on you for
this. Since both of us would give high priority (on moving anywhere to the west coast) to active cordiality between Berkeley
and Stanford, we ought to go out of our way not to provoke any resentments. I had precisely the same feeling when the tables
were turned last spring.
Who's going to be left in the midwest? It's curious there should have been a strong tide flowing in here during the
40's, and so many people leaving again now (at least in microbiology).
Enough for now-- we just have to get together soon. You can reach me most evenings, more relaxedly (and cheaply, if we're
to have more 15 minute sessions) by a station call to Cedar 3 2968.