Recorded: 17 Jul 2002
Well, I was always interested in science generally; from as far back as I can remember. By the time I was in grammar school, I had a laboratory in the basement of our house and by the time I was in high school, it was quite a large laboratory. I was purifying the rare earth elements and I was attempting to make metallic Europium, for reasons I won’t go into.
I was interested in applying chemistry and physics to—trying to understand biology, but I never liked biology courses because it was—it really wasn’t trying to explain why things are alive, but rather just naming things. So—and I liked mathematics and chemistry and physics.
Well, during the war, most students would do something [other] in the summer than just have a good time—World War II. So we went to summer school or got a job in a factory. I went to summer school and because of that I accumulated all of the necessary academic credits to be graduated from high school. And I went to the registrar—I would have started the second semester of the 11th year, they called it 11-B. And said, “I have all the credits, could I just have my high school diploma now?” And she said, “No, because you have to have three full years, grades 10, 11, and 12 of physical education, athletics. It’s California state law.” I said, “But you mean I just go to school another year and a half and do nothing but take athletics?” And she said, “No.” She said, “Are there any course you enjoyed?” I said, “Yes, I liked chemistry. I liked algebra.” She said, “Well, you can take them over again if you like.” As though it was something you liked to eat—you’d have another helping! This astounded me because up until then I had thought my teachers were infinitely wise about what I should be doing. So I became a kind of loose canon—wondering what to do with myself. And someone told me that there was a place, the University of Chicago that would take students who had not finished high school. So I went there thinking; now I can really study chemistry and physics.
No! Robert Maynard Hutchins had taken over the place. And in the undergraduate college, you could have liberal arts. There was no bachelor—he’s abolished the bachelor’s degree in chemistry. I’m glad this happened to me, but it was—at the time I thought it was a detour. But that caused me to read things that I would have never have read.
Anyway, eventually I went to Caltech and I had to be a freshman all over again because my credits from Chicago didn’t help. I didn’t like Caltech. I was a freshman there. I liked Linus Pauling’s chemistry course, but I didn’t like the fact that kids were so young—by then I’d been through college myself, I’d lived a year in Paris, almost a year in Europe. And they seemed awfully young and there were no girls. Even at Caltech, the method of teaching—at least it seemed to me—was mainly memorization, except for Linus Pauling’s course.
So I left and went back to the University of Chicago and took chemistry courses there. And they still weren’t giving a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, but I got a letter saying, if we did give the bachelor’s degree in chemistry, we would give one to Meselson. With that letter I got into the department of physics at Berkeley. So I wandered quite a bit.
And I spent a year there taking physics and mathematics courses. And then I was advised that I shouldn’t stay. I didn’t like it; it was too big. And I thought I would go back to the University of Chicago because there was a program called Mathematical Biophysics. And in those days, before the structure of DNA was known, if you’re a young person and you wanted to apply chemistry and physics to the problem of life, all you had to go on was the names of departments. And this sounded just right, Mathematical Biophysics!
Well, I had got to know Peter Pauling, Linus’s middle boy, at Caltech. And there was a swimming party. I think it was Peter who organized it. But anyway there was—maybe it was Linda, Pauling’s daughter—but there was a swimming party at Linus’s house. And I was in the water and Linus came out—here the world’s greatest chemist—wearing a vest, I remember and a necktie and I’m practically naked in the water, an insignificant undergraduate. And he said, “Well, Matt, what are you going to do next summer—next year?” And I said I was going to go to Chicago to study with Nicholas Rashevsky at the Committee on Mathematical Biophysics. Pauling looked absolutely astounded. And said, “Matt, that’s a lot of baloney. Why don’t you come to Caltech and work with me?” So I said, “Alright.” And that was it!
So just by this great good luck I was deflected from simply solving second order differential equations with various boundary conditions and got to be Linus’s, I was his last graduate student so far as I know. Certainly, at Caltech I was the last one in a long series. He had so many. And that was wonderful! I loved Caltech then.
And then in the summer of 19—that started in 1953, I guess. And then in the summer of 1954 I wanted to go to Woods Hole. And Jim Watson had come back from Cambridge during that year. He was living at The Atheneum; I was living at The Atheneum, so I saw Jim fairly often. And he said, “Come to Woods Hole and be a teaching assistant in the physiology course.” He and Francis were going to teach physiology. I didn’t do any teaching but I was called a teaching assistant, instead I did an experiment.
There I met Frank Stahl. And we decided to do this experiment but we had only a rough idea how it would eventually be done, but to find out if DNA replicated semi-conservatively. And I could go on and on!
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.