Matthew Meselson on Graduate Work with Linus Pauling: Applying Chemistry to Biological Problems
  Matthew Meselson     Biography    
Recorded: 17 Jul 2002

Well, Linus—when I first went to see him to get a research project—he put a rock on his desk and he said, “Matt, this is a mineral of the element Tellurium. Do you know about Tellurium?” (Shall I tell this story?) I said, “Yes. I knew about Tellurium.” He said, “Have you ever smelled hydrogen sulfide?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “It smells bad.” [I said] “Yes, Professor Pauling.” [Pauling asked] “Have you ever smelled hydrogen selinide?” [I said] “No, sir.” [Pauling said] “Well, it smells much worse than hydrogen sulfide.” [I said] “I see.” [Pauling said] “Uh, but, have you ever smelled hydrdogen telluride, Matt?” [I said] “No, no, I haven’t.” [Pauling said] “Well, its smell is much worse than hydrogen selinide as hydrogen does compared to hydrogen sulfide.” [I said] “Oh, I see, Professor Pauling.” [Pauling said] “Now, Matt, the reason I’m telling you all this is I’d like you to work on some crystals of Telluride compounds, but you ought to be very careful because some chemists have been sloppy working with tellurium compounds and have acquired what is called “Tellurium Breath.” [I said] “I see, Professor Pauling.” [Pauling said] “And, Matt, this is so bad that it isolates such people from society. In fact, Matt, several have even committed suicide. But I’m sure you’ll be much more careful so I’d like you to go home and think about whether you’d like to work on these crystal structures.”

So I went home and I didn’t have to think. I wanted to work on something related to biology. In addition, I’m sure that Linus had pulled this trick on a lot of other people and didn’t expect them to work on the Tellurium crystals. Though I don’t know for sure. So I want back after some time and said, “I’d like something with hydrogen and carbon and oxygen, and nitrogen, like biological things.” I didn’t know about DNA or I would have said phosphorous, too. So I asked to be given this molecule with everything but phosphorous that’s biological. And Linus laughed as I remember and said, “Yes, that would be fine. I have just the molecule for you; N, N’-dimethylmalonamide.” And Linus, of course, had built into the alpha helix, which he had already proposed; the idea that the amide group is planar because of resonance. And in, N, N’-dimethylmalonamide, it has two amide groups. And so he wanted to have a crystal structure that would really rigorously prove yet once more that the amide group has to be planar. And that was the crystal structure I did, and of course the amide groups were both planar. I never published this because I did the DNA work instead. It’s in my Ph.D. thesis as well; not the semi-conservative duplication, but rather the development of the method of the density gradient equilibrium centrifugation. So, yes, I was—to answer your question—which was, did I get interested in biology while I was still a chemistry graduate student of Pauling; yes, very much. That was my intention was to apply structural biology as a kind of molecular architecture to biological problems.

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.