Recorded: 11 May 2001
You never predict him doing this experiment because then he hired her after a week or two cause I knew from her after I visited here and was told there was no, my job is not ending. So then I wouldn’t have gone into industry but then I wouldn’t have made $8,000 for almost a year and got patents and got beautiful big car and everything else, well equipment, having food, still poor because as technician I didn’t get paid much, though I [would have a] very good paper. So anyway, I met him after I came for second time because on third day of my stay here there was a staff meeting. Every week there was a staff meeting. And that was Hershey giving his talk about experiment with Martha Chase, and I described that so I don’t know if I should repeat it.
In was in this room there because, you know, the other room at the same table we were sitting, we were sitting around the same table. There was Demerec and Barbara McClintock and I think Kaufmann [Berwind] didn’t come that day but maybe there were—Bruce Wallace, as far as I remember, myself, Hershey, not Martha cause it was a staff meeting so they didn’t invite technicians. And because there was not enough space there for technicians. I would swear he might have took her because it was her experiment. Well, they had some sort of an arrangment. And she was sitting there. And he said that he is going to tell something about some of his experiments which just didn’t work out in the way he wanted. And I don’t know if they would be very interesting for everybody, he was trying to play it down. And he just explained that he wanted to find out if its DNA or if its protein that’s responsible for heredity. And as introduction he say “I am immunochemist all my life and I know how important are the proteins and how specific they are as antibody so I never believed into DNA so the experiment proved that protein is responsible for heredity.” And so he described that he labeled protein with S35 and DNA was P32 and he…which is injected with Waring Blendor shearing off the phage particles, beautiful presentation, everything nice his results come very clear…that 90% of radioactivity came with DNA but 10%, no, sorry, it was less, 1% was protein, S32. He says, I will be working more on it because maybe this small amount of protein, which was with S35, is responsible because I don’t believe in that DNA. So Barbara McClintock said it was a very nice experiment. And I like to ask questions so I ask him “Dr. Hershey, why did you do this experiment? It was shown for a long time that DNA is responsible for heredity,” I say. Just before I left Poland, UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, sent to Poland a lot of American books because libraries were destroyed and I was in Institute of Technology in Gdansk and we got this big piles, I opened, and the first journal I pull out by chance was the Journal of Experimental Medicine. And that was described the Avery/McLeod experiment. So I said, “I immediately read it because fate put it into my hands and I’m a chemist and that was a beauty. I was so impressed because it was really chemistry showing it’s DNA. I was absolutely convinced, so why do you doubt?” And he had some sort of smile, said… I don’t remember if he knew me now “Waclaw,” I think he already said Waclaw because he was already, very good, catching up the names fast. “Waclaw, maybe you and your friends in Poland—but we in United States did not believe in the DNA.” I said, “Why?” “Because Mirsky said that Avery and MacLeod didn’t know what they were doing when they published this paper. Because they didn’t know the difference between DNA and nuclear proteins. So nobody paid attention to Avery in this experiment because Mirsky said that this is wrong.” So that was his answer. I remember, like today, [Al Hershey] said maybe you and your friend in Poland—but WE here in the United States—I remember every word that he said. He said it nicely and all…not to offend me, and I wasn’t that nice because I shouldn’t have questioned him why did he do the experiment when it is already done. But I couldn’t resist. I was naïve, you know, speaking out of my heart without any politics involved…just simply looking with all how beautiful is done and why…here he has this good evidence, and he doubts. And he brought up Mirsky controversy nothing because…I just didn’t—
Waclaw Szybalski is an authority on molecular biology, genetics and microbiology. He earned his Ph.D. at the Gdansk Institute of Technology in Poland and joined the University of Wisconsin in the mid-1950s where he is now Professor Emeritus of Oncology in the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research.
Szybalski is known for the many significant contributions he has made throughout his career, beginning with his studies on mutagenesis and continuing through his contributions to genomics. He was among the first to formulate the concept of multi-drug antibiotic therapy.
Szybalski has also participated in the Human Genome Project.
Szybalski is the founder and head of many editorial boards including that of the journal Gene.
A long-time meeting and course participant at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Szybalski was a friend and contemporary of many pioneers in the field of genetics, including Alfred Hershey, Martha Chase, Max Delbrück, and Barbara McClintock.