Recorded: 04 Jun 2001
John wore all that on his sleeve, of course, and was looking for anyone who would listen to the complexities he faced. I remember him repeatedly saying, “Look, we only have two months’ worth of money in the bank to pay people’s salaries. The sewage is running on the lawn…” and all those issues. I found that all amusing but not necessarily relevant for my particular concerns and it was clear that John needed and liked to have people to talk to about issues and I was one of those. Those discussions were always interspersed with John’s sense of humor and social graces in dealing with people. Walking down the [Bungtown] road – at that point everything was stables – walking down the road by John’s house [Airslie] often he would often wave and call me over for a beer on the porch and go on. It was a very casual and intimate time with Cairns there.
John had a great insight about what was going on but also a wonderful imagination of the plotting and scheming that must be going on behind the scenes.
I didn’t get the feeling [that he felt he was being excluded from serious deliberations about the future of the Lab]…. I got the strong opinion that he wasn’t absolutely sure that the people who were in the position to make the decisions were having the Lab’s best interests, or his best interests in mind. I think he wondered what motives were really driving people. Were the motives really to rescue the lab and make it a great place or were they to get the lab out of the complicated financial mess by some other route?
I don’t think there is any one thing at all. I think John’s general view about most things in life is that the glass is… half empty. Jim’s view is the glass is half full, which is a different way of viewing the Lab in particular. John could always see the glass getting less and less full, and saw no way to fill it back up. And Jim saw it as a glass that is half full and a great opportunity to fill it up and make it ready to go. So, I think [John’s] lack of interest in taking a gamble, a big gamble on making things really turn around, made it a less and less interesting job for him to do.
Well, I think that John deserves an awful lot of credit [that] he has not gotten. He, I think, did a number of things that were absolutely crucial during that time. He really did, through his conservative style, manage to keep the Lab going under conditions where it could easily have fully collapsed. Many people would have thrown in the towel much earlier, and he deserves lots of credit for that. Also, and more importantly, he kept the intellectual flavor of the Lab and especially during those summer months, it was so crucial since that was the world the rest of the scientists knew it was Cold Spring Harbor in the summer. He really kept that as a very viable and delightful opportunity for anybody who came through. He set a social scene and a intellectual scene for the summer times that made a very special mark on the Lab, which allowed it to still be the major center that everyone wanted to come and visit even though it was in horrible financial and physical straits. It would have been very easy to let this summer program drift. He did just the opposite and he built up into a really wonderful and rather unique intellectual social climate.
Raymond Gesteland, biologist, has made progress in describing essential mechanisms for controlled gene expression. His research on recoding provides insight into replication of RNA viruses such as HIV and the genetic code. Gesteland also concentrates on ribosome function and response to mRNA signals.
He received a master’s degree in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin and earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. After working at Alfred Tissières Laboratory in Geneva, in 1967, Gesteland arrived at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to work under Jim Watson as Assistant Director for Research.
Gesteland is currently Vice President for Research, Distinguished Professor of Human Genetics, and Chairman of the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Utah.