Waclaw Szybalski on Coming to America and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
  Waclaw Szybalski     Biography    
Recorded: 11 May 2001

It was just as bad for Russians. And so I asked Winge about advice where to come. And he says, “Well, there are two young men who are very good in that field, one is Francis Ryan at Columbia and another promising young man is Edward Tatum, which later got Nobel Prize, but then was promising, and then further is old-timer Demerec [Milislav Demerec] in Cold Spring Harbor. So I wrote to all of them and Tatum wrote to me that he’s just moving from Yale to Stanford has no plans, and so, and Demerec says, “Okay, come.” In 1949—1949. So I got on the boat—I got on the boat. I bought [a] first class ticket because I like to always to travel first class and I couldn’t take money from that market, (unclear, please clarify) I could only take fifty dollars, so I bought—and actually, first class was $400 dollars and not first class was $200 so it wasn’t so bad, anyway, I had [a] black tuxedo and [a] cotton shirt dress, and I met a lot of people, you know, which made very good connection. Actually, I met some from this neighborhood right on the boat (cough), and I arrived here. And I had friends here because there was an American family who lived on Lloyd Neck who, he was in Warsaw, advisor to Polish government in [the] ’30s to stabilize the Polish lot, and his son was my age so I was with them playing, when he was, so when they moved back to the United States just before the war, they invited me to come so I first lived on the Lloyd Neck. The name was John Foster Dulles. He was later Secretary of State in the Eisenhower administration and there is Dulles Airport called after him. They had a beautiful house and his brother, Allen Dulles was later head of [the] CIA; he also had two sons my age. So I mean we had good times. And I came here to Demerec to meet him and I said, “Here I am. I am ready to get the job.” And he says, “Oh, there is a problem.” And I say, “What is the problem?” And he says, “Well, the person who was supposed to leave and you were supposed to take over his job, didn’t get the job so he’s still here, so I don’t really have a place for you. It just changed in the last two days while you were traveling so I couldn’t let you know. So, uh, do you mind to wait?” I say, “How long?” “Well, a few months.” I said I had $50 with me, but I spend $ 15 on the deck chair on the Queen Elizabeth first-class. So I had $35, but I thought it would be enough for a few months. Cheap living. I stayed with friends, it wasn’t so bad. But I went to look for [a] job. I went to Philadelphia. They had a meeting of the American Chemical Society and that was the big burst of another kind of biotechnology. They were starting all antibiotic production, Merck, Eli Lilly, etc. So I signed there that I am looking for a job, which I needed. Within a half an hour or an hour I had three offers because—from three pharmaceutical companies, from Wyeth which was south in Westchester near Philadelphia, from Eli Lilly which was Midwest and Commercial Salvage which was Midwest. I decided to take the one close by because I was afraid to go further cause there might be Indians still there. And so anyway I took this job and they put me immediately in charge of the pilot plant cause—I was the best candidate they could think of, chemical engineer trained in fermentation and a year training in yeast genetics. I [was] never interested in genetics, though, penicillium, or pre-approved penicillium, you know. So I worked there for nine months and got two patents, made money, etc., paid me good salary then I came back to Cold Spring Harbor in summer and say, “Well, how about a job?” And Demerec says, “Yes, you can come. So when [would] you like to start?” I say, “Well, sometime soon, fall, whenever.” Cause he [the scientist who had the position] was still leaving, but didn’t leave yet, Dr. Tsu—he was Chinese. And he asked me how much do I make. I had the offer for $ 2,700 postdoc dollars, and I thought, that’s all right, single, I don’t need much money. And then he says, “How much do you owe now? How much do you get?” I said, “$8,000 dollars.” [Loud gasp from Dr. Szybalski imitating Milislav Demerec who says] “Oh, the same as me as a director, I couldn’t give it to you” So I said “But no, but its alright, $2,700, I just got two patents, I will get some income, I’m alright.” And so he says no, he gave $4,000. And that’s how I started. And I still lived in Lloyd Neck then I moved to a reserved lady [house] which later opened a—the motel, “The Anchorage Motel.” So I mean I lived in her house for a while and I was going to the end. I was swimming across to the sand spit and I walked in summer to the lab. I had a suit here and a suit there. So instead of going around, I was swimming across the… and I lived there until—short summer of 1951. And then an apartment opened at Hooper [House] and I moved to Hooper.

Waclaw Szybalski is an authority on molecular biology, genetics and microbiology. He earned his Ph.D. at the Gdansk Institute of Technology in Poland and joined the University of Wisconsin in the mid-1950s where he is now Professor Emeritus of Oncology in the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research.

Szybalski is known for the many significant contributions he has made throughout his career, beginning with his studies on mutagenesis and continuing through his contributions to genomics. He was among the first to formulate the concept of multi-drug antibiotic therapy.

Szybalski has also participated in the Human Genome Project.

Szybalski is the founder and head of many editorial boards including that of the journal Gene.

A long-time meeting and course participant at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Szybalski was a friend and contemporary of many pioneers in the field of genetics, including Alfred Hershey, Martha Chase, Max Delbrück, and Barbara McClintock.

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