Teaching and Research: Bibliographic Essays

Life Sciences in the Twentieth Century

by Garland E. Allen

Biochemistry & Molecular Biology

Biochemistry interfaces with biology and chemistry and is concerned with the chemical processes that take place within living cells. Modern biochemistry developed out of and largely came to replace what in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was called physiological chemistry, which dealt more with extracellular chemistry, such as the chemistry of digestion and of body fluids. Biochemistry as such is largely, though not exclusively, a twentieth-century discipline. Molecular biology, on the other hand, has come to mean the study of the function and the three-dimensional structure of such biologically important macromolecules as proteins and nucleic acids. Molecular biology is as much an interface of biology with physics as of biology with chemistry. In many respects biochemistry and molecular biology represent the realization of the dream of early twentieth-century mechanistic biologists, who were convinced that the most fundamental biological processes could ultimately be understood in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry. For a good general introduction to the historical traditions embodied in biochemistry and molecular biology, see Scott Gilbert’s “Intellectual Traditions in the Life Sciences: Molecular Biology and Biochemistry,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 1982, 26: 151-162.

The history of biochemistry is a young but growing field of investigation. Among the existing general texts are two that attempt to be systematic and cover the subect from antiquity: Henry M. Leicester’s Development of Biochemical Concepts from Ancient to Modern Times (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1974); and Joseph S. Fruton’s Molecules and Life (New York: Wiley, 1972). Both are relatively straightforward accounts that present a historical framework on which more interpretative views can be hung. Perhaps more interesting reading is a collection of essays edited by Joseph Needham, The Chemistry of Life: Lectures on the History of Biochemistry (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1970), which contains papers by a number of eminent biochemists and historians on various aspects of the history of biochemistry.

Much of the history of twentieth-century biochemistry owes its origin or stimulus to the pioneering work of a chemist turned historian, John T. Edsall, emeritus professor of biological chemistry at Harvard. The results are summarized in Edsall and David Bearman’s “Historical Records of Scientific Activity: The Survey of Sources for the History of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 1979, 123(5):279-292. A recent work that discusses the social context of scientific research in American biochemistry is Robert E. Kolher’s From Medical Chemistry to Biochemistry (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982). Kohler traces the shift from physiological chemistry to modern biochemistry in the light of reform in medical education and the institutionalization of academic disciplines in the period 1870-1930.

Some of the developments that have come to fruition in molecular biology since the 1950s originated in the area known as biochemical genetics. While the history of biochemical genetics has not yet received the attention it deserves, some inroads have been made. Bentley Glass’s older “A Century of Biochemical Genetics,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 1968, 109(1): 227-236, is still a good introduction for the general reader by another eminent scientist turned historian.

The history of the discovery of DNA has been told a number of times by writers of very different genres, from actual participants to journalists and historians of science. Of the several books on the subject, clearly the most authoritative and comprehensive are Robert Olby’s The Path to the Double Helix (Seattle: Univ. Washington Press, 1974) and Horace Freeland Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979). The former is by a historian of genetics and asks the more broadly historical questions. Judson’s work is of no less high quality, however, and in some areas, such as the relation of biochemistry to molecular genetics, is more complete than Olby’s. Judson has done heroic service by interviewing many of the principals, and his work is liberally illustrated with candid photos that add to its human interest.

James D. Watson’s The Double Helix (New York: Athenaeum, 1968) was the first book on the history of the DNA discovery. It is a relatively brief work and reads like a detective story, but as history it has to be taken with a grain of salt. Of particular interest in the DNA story is the work of Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958), the brilliant X-ray crystallographer at Kings College, London, whose studies were of critical importance to Watson and Francis Crick in providing precise data on interatomic distances within the DNA molecule. Anne Sayre’s Rosalind Franklin and DNA (New York: Norton, 1975) is a masterful essay in scientific biography. It portrays particularly well the problems that women scientists such as Franklin experienced in trying to get and hold research positions in a field dominated (like most sciences) by men. In a similar vein, and also dealing with the history of genetics, Evelyn Fox Keller’s A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work Of Barbara McClintock (San Francisco: Freeman, 1983) raises forcefully the issue of women in science and their struggle to be accepted as equals. For those who only want to dip briefly into the subject, Alfred E. Mirsky’s shorter “The Discovery of DNA,” Scientific American, June 1968, 218:78-88, presents the basic outline of events and conceptual problems. A more sociological and contextual account of the “path to the double helix” can be found in Donald Fleming’s “Emigré Physicists and the Biological Revolution,” in The Intellectual Migration: Europe and America, 1930-1960, edited by Donald Fleming and Bernard Bailyn (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1969). This masterful essay traces many aspects of the origins of molecular biology to the emigration of European (especially Austrian) physicists such as Max Delbriick and Erwin Schrbdinger to England and the United States in the 1930s, with their interest in seeking new laws of physics in the study of living matter.

The role of the Rockefeller Foundation, under the aegis of Warren Weaver, in actually influencing the growth of molecular biology has become the subject of a lively controversy. An essay by Lily E. Kay, “Conceptual Models and Analytical Tools: The Biology of Physicist Max Delbrück,” Journal of the History of Biology, 1985, 18:207-246, challenges the notion that the field of “molecular biology” was actually created by Weaver and the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1930s. A similar interpretation is offered by Pnina Abir-Am in “The Discourse of Physical Power and Biological Knowledge in the 1930’s: A Reappraisal of the Rockefeller Foundation’s ‘Policy’ in Molecular Biology,” Social Studies of Science, 1982, 12:341-382. One of a younger group of sociologically oriented historians of science, Abir-Am questions the role of private philanthropy in actually creating and shaping the development of the “field” of molecular biology. A similar point is made by Robert Kohler in “The Management of Science: The Experience of Warren Weaver and the Rockefeller Foundation Programme in Molecular Biology,” Minerva, 1976, 14:279-306. See also Edward Yoxen, “Giving Life a New Meaning: The Rise of the Molecular Biology Establishment,” in Scientific Establishments and Hierarchies edited by Norbert Elias, Herminio Martins, and Richard Whitley (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1982), pp. 123-143.

An interesting, though older and by now “classic” source is Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology, edited by John Cairns, Gunther Stent, and James D. Watson (Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory of Quantitative Biology, 1966). A number of the essays included are historical or reminiscent in character, and indeed the volume might be viewed largely as primary source material. For a neglected side of the story, see Seymour S. Cohen’s “The Biochemical Origins of Molecular Biology (Introduction),” Trends in Biochemical Sciences, 1984, 9:334-336, which argues that many of the histories of molecular biology have ignored the contributions of biochemistry to molecular genetics in general and to the discovery of DNA in particular.

The development of molecular genetics on the heels of Mendelian genetics has raised the inevitable philosophical question of whether the discovery of DNA represents the ultimate reduction of biological to physicochemical processes. Numerous philosophers of science have approached the issue, especially the basic question of what exactly is meant by “reductionism.” A useful exploration of this issue, specifically in relation to genetics, is by Kenneth Schaffner in “Approaches to Reduction,” Philosophy of Science, 1967, 34:137-147. In another paper Schaffner argues that molecular biology was not built on a conscious attempt to reduce Mendelian to molecular genetics: “The Peripherality of Reductionism in the Development of Molecular Biology,” Journal of the History of Biology, 1974, 7:111-139. On a slightly different track, David Hull maintains that molecular genetics is not logically deducible from Mendelian genetics: see “Reduction in Genetics–Biology or Philosophy?” Philosophy of Science, 1972, 39:491-499. Contrary to Schaffner and Hull, William K. Goosens maintains that Mendelian genetics was reduced to the chemical level by molecular genetics: “Reduction by Molecular Genetics,” Philosophy of Science, 1978, 45:73-95. Although this topic moves from history into philosophy, students find it challenging. Because of the centrality of molecular genetics to modern biology, it is particularly relevant to raise these philosophical questions in the context of the history of genetics.