Waclaw Szybalski on CSHL Directors
  Waclaw Szybalski     Biography    
Recorded: 11 May 2001

Demerec, forever was while I was here. Until I moved from here to Rutgers, which was big mistake. Because Demerec didn’t want me to go. But then when Demerec was retiring, he asked me if I would be could take over his job. But he being European didn’t realize that the director doesn’t select the next director (laughter). So that was sent to some committee, etc. I met at that time. [Arthur] Chovnick came—Chovnick was on spot and I was already away so I told I lost by one vote. But it doesn’t matter. So, Chovnick was the second. I liked Chovnick, he was very nice. But he [was] totally unsuitable for it, a very good scientist doesn’t mean that he would be a good director. You see, Demerec was collecting money for the endowment and I think makes for $100 or $200 thousand dollar endowment, which is nothing these days. Or even then it wasn’t… So Chovnick comes here, he has this money so he spent. And the first thing I remember they put all nice tile in the men’s showers and bathrooms in the top of Blackford which were then falling off, they weren’t there anymore. So I guess half of [the] endowment went there, if he did, so very soon there was no money and then he quit. And then Jim Watson was involved and some others of us… And Jim Watson decided that John Cairns would be the one who should; although he was very impressed because he did a very nice experiment he was here postdoc. But I was right in disagreement with Jim at that time because again Cairns was very nice, very good friend, but not fair to take an Australian postdoc who had never applied for grant in his life and never dealt with money to become director here and rebuild it back. But Jim told me that, promised, that if Cairns fails, he would become the director. And then he kept his promise. At that time when Chovnick came and I was considered, I could get as much money as I wanted because I knew very well the director of the National Science Foundation, Alan Waterman, and he asked me: “Waclaw, do you know who wants money? Congress gave us every year so much and I couldn’t spend.” He was calling me and asking to look for people. The same with the director of the NIH. I mean, the money was just for [the] asking. When I needed money from NSF, Alan Waterman, says “If you need below $50,000, call my secretary and they would send you a check. And if you need over $50,000, call me.” So I call him and he says, “Okay, tell the secretary to send you a check for $90,000 or something like this, just tomorrow, or today, write me a little letter and say what this money do you need for.” So it was very easy at that time to have money, and John [Cairns] was wonderful person, I think, but he didn’t have the chutzpah (laughter) to do all that at that time. So it was possible that I got [a] lot of money. In addition, I knew a lot of people here around so they asked me where to give money. So for me it would have been easy to get money for the lab at that time, I knew how. And Jim [Watson], now, etc. did then much more, much better than I would have done so, no doubt that Jim is much better with money than I, but during these gaps I would have been much better (laughter) to do that. Both socially, and that was with Demerec. He was a very shy person; he had this nice house, etc., he makes a very nice party for scientists but he had no relationship at all with the outside world, with the rich people. So when I was going to all parties, etc., they were just always saying, “Why, we would like to support you,” like to give more, they had to channel through the Long Island Biological Association, so they were getting. But, there were other ways to get it, etc., so, you know, Demerec had no capacity to interact socially with these people.

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.