Recorded: 11 May 2001
[Milislav] Demerec was Croatian and a very ambitious man. When I met him he was already in his 50s or close to 60s—and looking for his age. He was, very shy person on one hand and very pushy on the other hand. He achieved everything in life that he wanted. He was member of Academy (what academy, please clarify)— he was director—the first one of both labs here. He was president of Genetics meetings, whatever [he wanted] to achieve, he achieved. He was very quiet. He was a good scientist, but not [an] impressive scientist. He was doing things in systematic way and he had [a] green thumb whatever he selected it was really yielding a very good yield. He always had a big group of Japanese who worked very hard for him. And he correlated the data. The data were always hanging in his office. And he has lots of visitors, inviting visitors and ask them to look at the data and says, “So, what do you think about it?” And from time to time a visitor had a very good idea and Demerec was very clever and he immediately followed-up the suggestion and it was making new discovery and new things, and one of the typical things which I remember was the thing which was great discovery was operon theory by [François] Jacob and [Jacques] Monod, but actually they did that on the pages of Demerec’s finding beforehand. And although Demerec did not call it operon, its very important to give it a name and that was much more famous. So, he had _____(unrecognizable, please clarify)), and then Phil Hartman came here who married one of his daughters, and they found out that genes are clustered, which worked for synthesis of the same amino acid or something like this. There was cystine cluster, a cluster together…that was the idea of operon that they were together as a cluster. And what was interesting that there was a visitor, Sydney Brenner one year, Demerec invited him for usual things, what do you think? And he looked at it and says, “Oh that’s interesting.” It was the tryptophan cluster, cause he has map, the map of genes is the same one as the biochemical map, which Demerec knew nothing about it. So that’s extremely characteristic that biochemical pathway is the same as the genetic map. And that made a terrific impression on Demerec and much later when Monod and everything and the funny thing about it was that Brenner give the wrong information cause he makes up it (laughter). It wasn’t the same, it was different. But it doesn’t matter, it means the function, you know, the function was, A, B, C, D and gene was A, C, B, D but they’re still clustering, etc. But since he gave this wrong information that both are the same that was very big impression until people a year later checked that he was wrong (laughter).
I guess it was, the time when they published I think they got it right already but the question is, you know, there’s so many things to decide what to work on and this looked so attractive, so they started to work on it. It really didn’t matter that they were slightly different. But it makes the right impression at the right time.
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.