Recorded: 04 Jun 2001
My father was a watchmaker; his family was so poor [that] he never finished high school and he had to go a trade school like watch making. I think he would have been a good engineer. I remember my mother had saved a note from a teacher who said what a bright boy he was. So we were pretty poor. Also my brother was five years older and he was interested in everything but not in biology. He went into the Foreign Service. But I learned a lot from him because he read a lot; I didn’t read much. I’m not a fast reader. I’m a slow reader.
I was interested in animals. We had a good library in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania and they had [a] science magazine and they had many books on science. So I read that you could get fruit flies by sending a dollar for a culture to [a] Purdue University professor. I teamed up with a friend of mine from high school and we ordered them and worked on them. I had read a book on Morgan’s work on fruit flies. [This was] when I was in high school. Just looking at these pictures of fruit flies, I said we had to get some and do these things. I was in high school and the best thing about high school was that the football coach taught biology, at that time. They didn’t know anything, of course, but they let us do anything. We had a modern high school, Levinsky. And I was able to use the lab at night and we would work on the fruit flies in high school. We found a gene, now in fact one of the most important genes ever discovered. [Its] now called decaplentaplegia. But it is a gene that produces spread wings, which Novitsky noticed. We put this in a bottle and we saved it and it is now one of the main bone morphogene proteins to treat bone healing in people. It’s quite interesting. Many of the fruit fly genes are saved in us and that’s an example. [???] We did that in high school. It did get published, and I think [R.C.] Novitsky might have published it earl[ier]. He went to Purdue and I went to Minnesota. [The] Minnesota Academy of Science published one of my things, while I was an undergraduate.
Edward B. Lewis (1918-2004) was a renowned leader in genetics and Drosophila development research. He received his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in 1942. He served as captain of the United States Army Air Force from 1942-1945 as a meteorologist and an oceanographer in the Pacific Theatre. In 1946, he joined the Caltech faculty and was appointed Professor of Biology in 1956, earning a Thomas Hunt Morgan Professorship in 1966. In 1995, Lewis won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development” along with Christiane Nusslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus. Lewis is also a recipient of the Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal (1983), the Gairdner Foundation International award (1987), the Wolf Foundation prize in medicine (1989), the Rosenstiel award (1990) and the National Medal of Science (1990).