Recorded: 20 Aug 2006
AR: Well we went in each day. The problem that nagged us all was that we knew that, we had a belief. The belief was that DNA makes RNA, by methods we didn’t know. And that RNA makes proteins, by methods we didn’t know. And we were so naïve at the time we thought it might be possible to fold up an RNA molecule to make little holes into which amino acids would fit, one after another. And that didn’t seem possible. Although,…at one point we were working in the lab, and a letter arrived from Jack Dunitz who was in Bethesda at NIH. And he commented about several things. And he said, Oh by the way, I’m sure you’ve seen the paper by Rundle in the JACS, the Journal of the American Chemical Society. His model of RNA looks, seems to have solved the problem. And Coury, Linus’ colleague, had checked the coordinates and they’re okay. Well…we were thrown into a frenzy at that point. Because it looked like somebody else had solved the structure. And, we frantically started building…we, Jim Francis, and I, and Leslie, frantically started building different models to see what he could have known. Rundle, I knew Rundle, he was a very smart guy, worked in Ames, Iowa, and just the kind of person that could come up with this. A good crystallographer. But uh…We spent maybe two hours of very intense activity. Jim getting very tense and unhappy. Francis wondering what was going on. And I was…anyhow there we were working hard. And at that point I remember, Don Caspar wandered into the lab. The lab was a large room, the model building room. And he was sitting on a high stool with his legs crossed, looking at the letter, sort of …with his foot oscillating back and forth. You know, he said, maybe this is a joke. And at that point, we all stopped. And then…we…let me just say as abackground. Gamow had already moved back to Bethesda. We knew that. We said, Well, if this were true, and Linus knew about it, he probably would have told Peter. They corresponded a lot, …his son. But Peter knew nothing about it. So that made it seem a little more suspicious. And then Jim had got, received a letter from Max, casually mentioning it. Then, I think we learned that Max had gone East on a trip and had visited Gamow. Now both Max and Gamow were consummate practical jokers. They spent a lot of time on that. So …we were absolutely certain it was a spoof. But you know, there’s always that nagging feeling. So after much consulting of what to do, we decided to do something unbelievable. I would actually make a transatlantic telephone call to Jack Dunitz at NIH, at my lab, he had written the letter. In those days that was a very daring thing to do, and expensive. So I remember we were all huddled around and I got the phone, and I got Jack on the phone, and I said, We’ve received your letter, but we think it’s a joke. And Jack has a very strong Glaswegian accent, he’s a Scotsman. “Alex,” he said, “you know, this telephone call is very expensive. My suggestion to you is, I have a tape recorder. You speak as fast as you can and then I’ll play the tape back slowly and you can get all the information I …..” Ha, ha!! Anyhow, that was so funny. We knew that we’d been had. And indeed what had happened at a party the preceding week in Bethesda, Max and Gamow had hatched the plan and got Jack to write a letter, and Max wrote the letter, and so on. Wonderful.
MP: So sometimes instead of doing scientific investigations, you did a social investigation.
AR: Oh yes, yes. Well it was very funny, very funny. But what was funny was we were all so convinced that it was right. Now…ah…Well...it’s an example of what might be called collective hysteria. This is perhaps an example of collective hysteria. We were working so intensively on the problem we couldn’t imagine, and we scratched our heads, we couldn’t imagine what kind of a solution he could have. We thought we had covered everything, but maybe we hadn’t. Anyhow, very funny.
Alexander Rich (b. 1924), biologist and biophysicist, is the William Thompson Sedgwick Professor of Biophysics and Biochemistry, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Biology. Rich first joined the MIT faculty in 1958. Subsequent to serving in the U.S. Navy from 1943-1946, Rich earned his undergraduate degree (A.B., magna cum laude, 1947) and medical degree (M.D., cum laude, 1949) from Harvard University. While doing his postdoctoral work at Caltech under Linus Pauling, Rich met Jim Watson and they began their collaboration on the structure of RNA. From 1969-1980 he was an investigator in NASA's Viking Mission to Mars, the project which designed experiments to determine if there is life on Mars.
Alex Rich's most well-known scientific discoveries are left-handed DNA, or Z-DNA, and the three-dimensional structure of transfer RNA. He has been elected to the the National Academy of Sciences (1970), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, the French Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (the Vatican.) Among other awards and honorary degrees he has received are the Medal of Science granted by President Clinton in 1995, the Rosentiel Award in Basic Biomedical Research, and the Presidential Award of the New York Academy of Sciences.
Since the 1980s Alex Rich has been actively involved in number of companies in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. He co-founded the pharmaceutical company Alkermes Inc. in 1987 and currently serves as a director. He is also Co-Chairman of the Board of Directors of Repligen Corporation, Inc., a biopharmaceutical company, a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of Roseta Genomics, and a member of the Board of Directors for Profectus Biosciences, Inc.