Jeffrey Miller on Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory-Memories
  Jeffrey Miller     Biography    
Recorded: 08 Mar 2006

Well, um..part of …Of course, Cold Spring Harbor, you know which is such a fabulous place in molecular biology, in 1968 was still a place where during the regular year there were very few people there. And they had courses and meetings in the summer, but the research groups were rather sparse. So when Jim started to become head of the lab, and became head of the lab, he encouraged a lot of people to come down and do summer research.

He asked me down that was the first summer. I went there in 68, and Julian Davies, who’s Welsh, he’s a wonderful researcher, one of the world’s experts now on bacterial resistance to antibiotics. He came there and it happened to be the, 1968 was when they had the investiture (??) of the Prince of Wales, or were going to. And as it turns out, this was the first one in a very long time, since I believe Edward the VIII, sometime around 1918, probably the first one in 50 years. And the Welsh don’t appreciate this paying of tribute, so as a prank he put notices up saying that there was going to be a protest march on Sunday against the investiture and everybody’s going to meet at the lab and then march on the town, and this and that. And as it turns out, one of the dishwashers in the bacterial genetics course was the teenage daughter of the police chief. So she took one home and the guy just freaked. And in his Smoky the Bandit thing comes and he arrests Julian for incitement to riot. By bad luck John Cairns and Jim were both away for a couple of days. Normally that would be very funny, but since he was there on an immigrant visa that specifically prohibited him from engaging in political activities, for a day or two things looked really, really bad. And then finally everyone came back and then the judge of Laurel Hollow, which Cold Spring Harbor I think is actually in, Jim Eisenman, who was a trustee of the lab, of course he realized what was going on and quashed the whole thing. But it was really one of the funny events.

That didn’t involve Jim directly, but one of the people he invited down was Charlie Thomas, who was then a professor at Harvard Medical School and sort of had an aristocratic bent to him. And whereas the rest of us and other scientists at Harvard would take the station wagon, drive down from Boston with their materials, he’d actually rented a sea plane. And so there is everybody on the beach and this seaplane comes in over the harbor and then it lands. And he comes out and he starts waving at people and they wave back, and after a half an hour that they realize they have to go out in boats and get him because you’re still in the water. So like the natives greeting Captain Cook they came out and got him. And then he presented Jim with a bill for the seaplane. And of course the lab was on a shoestring. Jim really got very upset. Finally they arranged some compromise where the lab would pay half of it. But I think Jim seethed. And I am told, okay, I think Ray Gesteland told me this, that a couple of years later when they built tennis courts at Cold Spring Harbor Jim was walking early one morning and he saw Charlie Thomas on the courts and he kicked him off because he wasn’t wearing whites. I didn’t see that per se, but I’m sure it’s true, and it’s really a precious story.

Cold Spring Harbor during those days was really a lot different than now. Things like that would happen. But you had asked me about Jim and Liz. You know, Liz is also a person of enormous personal character. And she and Jim invited me for dinner at…, you know they had a couple of different houses, on a number of occasions early on. Because when Liz first married Jim, obviously she was younger and when she first started, there the poise and the maturity that she had just won all of us over. So from almost the first meeting we realized that this was a really substantial person of enormous character. And from the very beginning I’ve always been very close friends with them as a family. I just have wonderful memories of so many different times we had dinner either at their house, or we would go out across the water to neighboring places. Another Cold Spring Harbor type story, just to show you the times. And this was like around 1969, perhaps, the Summer of Love, or whatever. John Lindsay was Mayor of New York and his brother lived, I think in Laurel Hollow. So he would on weekends come with a helicopter that would land on the beach at Cold Spring Harbor with a police escort. They would walk across the beach to cars, and then go to his brother’s house. And that summer, you know because that was just during the year of Woodstock, and all that. One course, you know, had quite a few people in it who really smoked marijuana, and they would go to the beach and smoke marijuana. And just as Lindsay’s helicopter is coming in, there’s this cloud of very obvious pot. And I remember some of the officials of the lab were panicking so, because there’s no way you can mistake this. And here comes the mayor of New York but with his police escort. So the helicopter lands, they get out, they walk through this, go to the cars, go off, … nothing. So big sigh of relief, and so on. But it’s a real example of the Cold Spring Harbor of those days. It was really a lot of fun.

It was when I was a second year graduate student, the informality of molecular biology really was exhibited to me at Cold Spring Harbor. Max Delbrück would come for the summer, and every…you’re on a first name basis with him. And scientists like that. I think it had tremendous impact on your development. And Max, even though at the time he was 70, he took up tennis sort of late and became a real addict. And once he got a whole group of younger people that went out to play tennis. The courts were locked, so he climbed over this like twelve foot fence and stares back and nobody else, people in their twenties and thirties had the courage to climb over. He finally cajoled them over, because what could they do. It was really a fun place. I remember Barbara McClintock, who I first met the very first year I was there, and she caught me reading The New York Times in her mailbox, the first time I met her. She just beat me over the head with it and yelled at me. I was really pretty embarrassed. We then became really good friends, and on each of my trips back I would always talk with her. It was that kind of informality that made it a wonderful place.

Jeffrey H. Miller, Ph.D., is the Distinguished Professor of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles. After receiving his undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Rochester, he did graduate work in biochemistry and molecular biology at Harvard in the department that included Jim Watson and Walter Gilbert, doing his thesis work under Jonathan Beckwith at Harvard Medical School. His postdoctoral work was pursued under Benno Müller-Hill at the Institute for Genetics of the University of Cologne in Germany, followed by 11 years on the faculty at the University of Geneva's Department of Molecular Biology, which was then headed by Alfred Tissières. In 1983 he joined the faculty at UCLA, where his scientific focus has been large-scale DNA sequencing and genomic analysis, the enzymology of DNA repair, protein structure, and the role of DNA repair enzymes in human cancer. He received the 2007 Career Award for Research from the Environmental Mutagen Society.

Miller has been a frequent participant at Cold Spring Harbor Symposia, a course lecturer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and a co-organizer of two meetings at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's Banbury Center. He has been a consultant and principal in various biotechnology companies since the 1980s. In 1994 he co-founded Diversa Corporation, which has merged to become Verenium, a publicly owned biofuel company. He is the author of several books and laboratory manuals published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, including "Experiments in Molecular Genetics" (1972), "A Short Course in Bacterial Genetics" (1992), and "Discovering Molecular Genetics" (1996).