Center for Humanities & History of Modern Biology

From One Nobel Prize Winner to Another

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Ever since Dr. Watson won his Nobel Prize in 1962 people have been seeking his autograph.  As part of our digitization project, I'm creating metadata for these autograph requests and I'm plugging names into the Library of Congress Name Authority File to see if anyone of interest pops up.  I often wonder if the people who wrote to Watson later went on to achieve anything of note themselves.  

Read more: From One Nobel Prize Winner to Another

Early Impressions of The Double Helix

One thing that I have learned about Dr. Watson as a writer is that he is not shy about sharing unfinished drafts with colleagues.  We have scores of letters from the likes of Paul Doty, Tom Maniatis, and Matt Meselson commenting on early versions of Avoid Boring People.  He also famously shared drafts of The Double Helix with Crick and Wilkins, who were, somewhat understandingly, appalled.

As part of the "Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics" digitization project, we will soon be making these letters freely available online for the first time.

I found one particular set of letters regarding an early draft of The Double Helix very interesting.  Watson had sent a copy of the manuscript to an acquaintance in the summer of 1965, who subsequently sent a series of letters back to Watson documenting her delight with the draft.  Her name was Suzanne Reeder, had just left Cambridge (Massachusetts), and was obviously close with Watson.  The letters start in July 1965.  She mentions attending a conference in Berlin, as well as meeting Odile Crick in Cambridge sometime earlier, before returning home to England.  Towards the end of the letter she indicates that she will be flying back to the states, and then asks for a copy of the book.


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Cold Spring Harbor Audio Visual Collection Processing


Processing the Cold Spring Harbor Audio Visual Collection was a unique experience due to the volume and scope of the Collection. The Collection overall consists of 4,950 pieces of media, in 11 different formats and takes up about 130 linear feet of shelf space, depending how you count it. It was grouped by format but hadn’t been looked at in years, which meant that old inventory lists, if they existed, were no longer accurate.  I had to start over cataloguing the media which took about 165 hours.  Keeping the Collection grouped by media made sense on one level (as opposed to grouping by subject matter) because much of the media was not readable and the processing often became a game of “Name that obsolete Format”.  Below is a photograph of the Analog Video Formats.Analog-Video-Formats

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Modern Genetics and its Foundations Preview on Flickr

JDW Sr. Ghost Mother Portrait

For the past year we have been digitizing documents from the James D. Watson and Sydney Brenner Collections as part of the Wellcome Library's  "Modern Genetics and its Foundations" project.  This includes all types of documents: letters, postcards, handwritten manuscripts, laboratory data, and even Watson's day calendars.  But the images I was most interested in come from Watson's extensive photograph collection.  

The photos document Watson's entire life, from his infancy to his 80s.  In fact, they go back even further -- the portrait above is of his father, James D. Watson, Sr., and was taken in 1897.  Take a closer look at the photograph and you will notice that little Jimmy is not seated on a chair, but is actually on his mother's lap!  Taking portraits was a much lengthier procedure in the 19th century, so mothers often hid beneath a sheet to comfort their children and keep them still throughout the photo session. The result is a slightly unsettling image of an infant held by a cloaked specter (known as "ghost mothers").

For more early images from the Watson Collection check out our Flickr page where we will be providing a preview of the photographs digitized as part of "Modern Genetics and its Foundations" project.

Hurricane Sandy and the NEH Preservation Assistance Grant

When word came that a hurricane was moving up the eastern seaboard and would soon wreak certain havoc all along the coast, we were prepared.  Our library is located directly on the Long Island Sound, so flood preparation plans were already in place.  The bottom shelf of our storage space is set several inches off the floor, but to be safe everything on those shelves were moved to designated safe rooms on the upper level of the library.  Our archives are also equipped with a storm door, a heavy iron door which can be bolted into place in case of emergencies.  It was locked tight by Sunday afternoon.  Luckily the archives remained dry throughout the storm, but if the worst case scenario had occurred, our disaster recovery plan provides us with the policies and procedures to effectively respond to the emergency.  All of the above was made possible with guidance provided by the NEH Preservation Assistance Grant.

 In early 2011 we were awarded the NEH grant, which provided funding for a two day preservation assessment by consultant Tom Clareson (of LYRASIS).  The weeks prior to his visit were spent reviewing the preservation policies and disaster plans of other institutions, and in an effort to not appear completely clueless, we drafted a disaster plan of our own.  Tom was happy to review our draft policies, and with his recommendations we finalized the disaster recovery plan that served us so well during the recent storm.

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50 Years Ago Today: Watson Wins Nobel Prize

 Watson Nobel Clipping

On this day 50 years ago it was announced that Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and James D. Watson had won the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA.  Watson was a professor at Harvard University at the time, and a student took the liberty of announcing the news by scrawling "Dr. Watson has just won the Nobel Prize!" on his classroom blackboard. Here's a humorous side-note regarding Harvard and the prize: Watson assumed that he would receive receive a large bonus from Harvard on top of the standard $2,000 a year raise.  The university, restricted by budget cuts, instead opted to not give out any pay raises at all.  Watson was not amused.

Read more: 50 Years Ago Today: Watson Wins Nobel...

The Cold Spring Harbor Clippings Collection

The following is another post in our series highlighting the collections that are being processed through the NHPRC Basic Processing Grant.
The Cold Spring Harbor Clippings Collection is a compilation of newspapers, magazines and trade journals relating to the scientists and events both at CSHL and the scientific community at large. The Collection dates from 1903-2012. From 1924, if not earlier, CSHL or the Biological Laboratory, as we were then known, employed a clipping service to keep track of newsworthy mentions. Answering the age old question, “Which came first the chicken or the egg?” was certainly a top story.
Chicken or the Egg Clipping

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Science Books That Changed The World

What is Life?

New Scientist online is currently holding a competition to determine what is the most influential popular science book of all-time. 25 titles have been shortlisted by the journal, including Dr. Watson's famous memoir, The Double Helix.  The list compiles many of the most famous publications of the past three centuries, including On the Origin of Species, The Selfish Gene, and A Brief History of Time.  There are, however, some notable books left off the list, such as Carl Sagan's Cosmos, and a personal favorite, Surely You're Joking, Mr, Feynman!  It should be noted that Watson himself would almost certainly choose Erwin Schrödinger's What is Life?, which inspired him to change his studies from ornithology to genetics, and set him on a path to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA.

Image courtesy of the the Central Library for Physics in Vienna.

Winship Herr Collection

The following is another post in our series highlighting the collections that are being processed through the NHPRC Basic Processing Grant.

Winship Herr

Winship Herr was born in 1958 in New Haven, CT.  In 1974, he obtained his A.B. (Biology) at University of California at Santa Cruz and received his PhD from Harvard University in 1982 for studies on recombinant retroviruses in leukemogenic mice with Walter Gilbert. After postdoctoral studies with Frederick Sanger in Cambridge, England and then with Joe Sambrook at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, he joined the CSHL faculty in 1984. After achieving the rank of Senior Scientist, he served as assistant director of the Laboratory from 1994-2002 and from 1998-2004 was the founding Dean of the Watson School of Biological Sciences, a doctoral degree-granting school. In 2004, he joined the Center for Integrative Genetics in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The Winship Herr Collection is comprised mainly of material generated from 1991 to 1994.  At CSHL, Dr. Herr’s work focused on the mechanics of transcriptional regulation in eukaryotes utilizing two cellular proteins, Oct-1 and Oct-2 and a herpes simplex protein, VP16.

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1968: A Banner Year for Watson

 1968 was a momentous year in the life of James D. Watson, perhaps only eclipsed by 1953, the year of his famous co-discovery. Coincidentally, three major events occurred during the year, each of which would shape the course of his life to come. 

First, his personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA was published and became a surprise bestseller.  Watson had been interested in writing for much of his life (influenced by his mother and father, both avid readers), and he viewed the success of his memoir as one of his great accomplishments.  As of 2012, he has written a number of non-fiction works, including a sequel to his 1968 memoir (Genes, Girls, and Gamow).

1968 was also the year that Watson took over as Director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.  It's former director, John Cairns, had almost single-handily saved the lab from certain financial doom during his brief tenure in the mid-1960s.  While its finances had been stabilized, it was up to Watson to drum up enough money to rehabilitate the lab's facilities and hire a new generation of scientists to work on the new major problems in biology.  It was Watson who decided the research focus of the lab should be cancer and with grant money flowing from the "War on Cancer" he was able (with the help of Joseph Sambrook) to build new laboratories and initiate a tumor virus program to rival any other research institution.  It was here, on the north shore of Long Island, that Watson honed his skills as a spokesman and fundraiser for scientific research.

Read more: 1968: A Banner Year for Watson

Amos Avery Photographic Collection Processing

Datura Workers 1927Amos Avery was an associate in plant breeding for the Carnegie Institution of Washington Department of Genetics (predecessor of the CSHL). Mr. Avery was in charge of the gardens and greenhouses under Dr. Albert Blakeslee (center in the photo above) from 1926-42. He left Cold Spring Harbor in 1943. During this time Mr. Avery and his wife Ruth took hundreds of photographs in and around the Carnegie campus at Cold Spring Harbor, NY. This collection, now housed in the CSHL Archives, includes 129 unsorted photographs, approximately 75 negatives, and 3 scrapbooks.
The photos were given to the Archives by Mr. Avery’s daughter, Nancy Avery in April 1999, shortly after his death. It was accessioned and processed by Clare Clark and Brian Soldo, by a grant provided by the New York State’s Documentary Heritage Program (DHP), a statewide program ensures the survival of New York's documentary heritage by providing financial support and guidance to the not-for-profit organizations that hold, collect and make available the state's historical records.

Read more: Amos Avery Photographic Collection...