Recorded: 17 Jul 2002
Well, you ask how I met Jim. Before that I’ll tell you how I first heard of Jim. So I wanted to meet Max Delbrück, but he was in the Biology Department and I was in the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Caltech. And I’d been told by another of Pauling’s students, Martin Karplus—who’s there at Harvard now, in the chemistry department—that Delbrück was a very fierce individual. And Martin in fact had wanted to do research with Delbrück, but there had been some episode—I’ve never found out from Martin what it was—that drove the two apart and he ended up with Pauling. So I was intimidated. Nevertheless, I thought, after all Delbrück is a physicist and he’s doing biology and I really must go talk to him. Caltech was small.
So I asked to have an appointment. And I went to see Max. And he’s sitting in his basement office and he—and as I walk in he picks a stack of reprints, he had received this from Jim, this was the spring of 1953. He said, “What do you think about these new papers. The two papers in Nature in April of 1953 about the structure of DNA?” And I said I’d never heard about it. So he threw these reprints at me, like that, and said, “Get out of here and don’t come back until you’ve read these papers!” Well I thought this was wonderful. He had just said come back. So I tried to understand these papers and I didn’t—I knew about X-ray crystallography cause that was what I was doing, but only of crystals not of fibers. And I remember lurking in the halls trying to overhear a conversation between Alex Rich and Jack Dunnis. I was standing on the stairs in McCullin lab and they were farther down the stairwell talking about fiber diagrams. But I was trying to learn anyway about that kind of diffraction which has to do with bessel functions and all that.
And finally I thought I could at least hold my own with Max, cause he wasn’t a crystallographer anyway. And I went back and he told me about the manuscript he was writing together with Dr. Stent for the McCullin-Pratt Symposium book; how does DNA replicate, semi-conservatively, conservatively, or dispersively? And that’s their paper. And then I realized that this thing for beta-galactosidase would better be done with DNA.
And I told Pauling about it and Pauling said this is a nice thing to do. You should do it. Get your crystallography done first. And I told it to Jim and now if I remember it correctly—no, I shouldn’t say this is the first time I met Jim, cause maybe I don’t remember that, I don’t know. But the first memory I have is we’re sitting in these leather chairs in The Atheneum, in the big living room of The Atheneum. Jim had been reading a newspaper and somehow we started talking. And I told him about this idea, and he said don’t do it here, do it in Sweden. And that’s all I remember of that conversation. But we certainly talked on numerous occasions and we were going out with the same lady at one point. And eventually anyway, Jim said why don’t we come to Woods Hole. I didn’t see much of Jim though, really. I saw something of him, but not a lot. I was partly—you see, I was in the chemistry domain there, not in the biology domain. Even though I would hang out quite a bit once Frank [Stahl] came, but Frank wasn’t there until after I went to Woods Hole. Frank didn’t come till the following year. I probably wouldn’t have met Frank without Jim though. First, because I wouldn’t have gone to Woods Hole, but second because of an event: Jim and Francis and Sydney Brenner, who had come to visit and was wearing short pants, which was not something that Californians used to see commonly, so it’s always unusual to see a gentleman in short trousers. Where in Brewen, the brick building at Woods Hole, across from which is a street and there’s a lawn. And Frank Stahl was sitting under a tree on that lawn. And Jim, I think it was Jim, sort of points out the window and says, “See that. That’s Frank Stahl. He thinks he’s pretty hot stuff. Why don’t we give him a really tough experiment and see what he can do with it. We’ll give him the Hershey-Chase Blendor experiment and see if he can do it by himself in one afternoon.” So I thought—this is, the poor guy—ganging up on him is Francis and Sydney and Jim are all going to throw this hot potato at this poor guy. So I decided—I go down and meet him, both because Jim had said he was hot stuff and because I felt that somebody should warn him what was coming.
So I went down there. Frank had bought lots of gin and tonic and limes and he was selling gin and tonic to people and would drink some himself with the profits. And he was doing some calculations trying to figure out a problem in phage radiobiology. The decay of phosphorous P32, it had to do with his thesis under Gus Doermann at Rochester. At that time Frank didn’t know a lot of mathematics; he knows a lot more now. But he didn’t know how to set up the integrals, the simple Poisson integrals to calculate what’s called multiplicity reactivation of P32 damaged phages. I could explain it. He explained it to me in terms of clothesline and bluebirds, you want to cut this down, it’s going on too long. But the problem he presented me ’cause he knew I couldn’t understand the real biology was there’s a clothesline. And there’s some clothes pins that are distributed randomly and some bluebirds lands at random and some blackbirds land at random. The question is, knowing the mean number of bluebirds and the mean number of blackbirds, what is the chance that on both sides of any given clothes pin the first bird that will be encountered on each side is blue and not black. So that’s easy to calculate with a Poisson distribution and the blackbirds are P32 damages and the bluebirds are crossover events and the clothespins are genetic markers.
Well, Frank and I started talking about this experiment using heavy and light and to find out how DNA replicates and I learned that he was going to be at Caltech to work with Joe Bertani under Max Delbrück the following year. And various things happened. We rented a house together from Caltech. Jan Drake moved in with us, later Howie Temin moved in, John Cairns was our dining partner, but didn’t sleep there. It was a wonderful time. It was just a great time.
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.