Recorded: 11 May 2001
Well, my home, was very often home, in Lwow, Poland and most of [the] visitors of my parents were university professors. So I was exposed to science and all discussion and everything from childhood. But I decided that my field would be aeronautic engineering, that I would [be] building airplanes. I would have been doing that probably, I was getting systematically prepared, if not that war started [World War II] and in 1939 when I graduated from high school I was ready to enter the university and the war started and Lwow then was occupied. The Soviet Union took it over and university was opened. But aeronautic engineering was eliminated as politically sensitive. So I decided to study chemistry.
So I studied chemistry and I took a course, we had a professor in the department of biotechnology. So I decided biotechnology was a good field. I think it was yet only a department of technology in the world at that time, but it was fermentation engineering. So I took courses and I fell in love, especially after Professor Joszt—was the head of it—said when he discussed the genetics of yeast as a part of that which was also brand new. He says, “Well, just five years before the war, Professor Winge [Ojvind Winge] in Copenhagen started with [the] develop[ment] genetic of yeast, it’s important in the rest of the organs and you could improve the strains and in this way you get better yield, you could combine gene, you could make [an] ideal strain for fermentation in our field—that’s a totally new field, that’s where progress lies.” And I got so impressed that I decided that that would be my field. So though I was a trained chemist, during one lecture I decided to be yeast or microbial geneticist.
And since I was impressed that Winge decided to work with me cause I wasn’t so easy because at that time it was Soviet occupation, then Hitler came, there was German occupation then Soviet came again. And I moved because we were—Lwow was evacuated of the population. And I moved to Gdansk. And then in 1946 I was assistant professor in Chemistry department and then Markus invited all students of the three universities, Gdansk, Wich and Warsaw Chemistry department to come to Copenhagen to spend the summer and I went with them. And I went immediately to Winge and I said, “My dream, that I like to study genetic engineering,” and he said, “What’s that?” He didn’t know the word, cause that’s the word that was used by my professor in Lwow. And anyway then allowed that I worked with him and I worked on genetic engineering. And then I stayed in Copenhagen for several years. I still have the Polish passport and those few things going back and forth when I had [a] visa in Copenhagen, so I wouldn’t have to ask them.
And then the Cold War and everything like that looked pretty bad and Poland required a Russian Marshal Rokossovsky and then I thought we would be incorporated into the Soviet Union—will ask them to incorporate them. And so I decided since I was already was two years in Lwow [a] Russian citizen and during that time I didn’t enjoy it because half of my friend[s] were deported to Kazakhstan and another somewhere else.So I decided to go to United States. It would be further away in case of Cold War. Stalin was still alive. I didn’t know when he would die, so I thought I’ll wait and—cause I didn’t like him too much.
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.