Matthew Meselson on John Cairns, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Director
  Matthew Meselson     Biography    
Recorded: 17 Jul 2002

Well, yeah, he [John Cairns] was lured there [to CSHL] under false pretenses. He was told that the Board of Trustees would do the money raising and he was not told about the deficit nor about the abysmal conditions of some of the facilities there that needed a ton of money just to get them fixed—even the sewage. So John walked in, I think John was expecting the same gentlemanly standards that John himself would have practiced; instead he walked into a nightmare. But he did get the place out of the red, which was enormous accomplishment. It was about to expire. Not only expire, but to expire in sewage.

I don’t know whether if you were ever there during that time, but there were broken sewage lines. It was really weird.

So John was kind of the transition that got the place breathing again. Then Jim came and really rose it to enormous heights, raised it to enormous heights.

John, [I met] the first time at Caltech—when he had come there just to learn molecular biology and be with Max, and I don’t know if I told this or not. I think I did which was; the best thing for you to do was to build a model of DNA, and then you’ll know everything.

And we had all the tinker toys there. And John did that. He built a marvelous model of DNA and then he dined with us so we saw John all the time. Our dinner table conversations—John and Frank and Jan Drake. It was just marvelous.

Dick Feynman would come by to our parties [and] steal the few girlfriends we had.

There are some marvelous tapes, by the way, of Dick Feynman’s physics lectures. I have them in my car that I play them. He did biology, you know, Dick did. In fact, a paper that I’m reviewing for the Proceedings for the National Academy starts off with his work on internal suppressors, which was something he thought about before most people, I guess.

John is one of the most civilized people I’ve ever met. One of the most decent people I’ve ever met. One of the most deeply thinking persons and I love him!

Matthew Meselson earned his Ph.D. degrees from the University of Chicago in 1951 and from the California Institute of Technology in 1957 under the tutelage of Linus Pauling.

In 1958 with Frank Stahl, Meselson experimentally showed the semi-conservative mechanism of DNA replication as predicted by Watson and Crick.

He is currently the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences in Harvard University's Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. His laboratory studies sexual reproduction and genetic recombination, and how and why they are maintained in evolution.

Since 1963 Meselson has been interested in chemical and biological defense and arms control, has served as a consultant on this subject to various government agencies and is a member of the Committee on International Security and Arms Control of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Meselson has received the Award in Molecular Biology from the National Academy of Sciences, the Public Service Award of the Federation of American Scientists, the Presidential Award of the New York Academy of Sciences, the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award of the American Association of the Advancement of Science, and the 1995 Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal of the Genetics Society of America. Dr. Meselson is presently a member of the Committee on International Security and Arms Control of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.