Wild Types: blogging about molecular biology, biochemistry and anything in between!
February 8, 2012 § 2 Comments
Welcome to the Wild Types blog, where I will be discussing and musing about matters pertaining to molecular biology and biochemistry. I hope to cover a range of topics – basic and applied biomedical research, lab culture, science policy issues – almost anything that is nibbling away in my head as I go about in my day job as the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s senior science writer and technical editor.
I invite you all to treat this blog as our community water cooler and get some interesting discussions going about the various facets of being a scientist in the 21st century! (And just a reminder to observe common-sense blog etiquette: Be nice and polite. You may disagree with someone else’s point of view, but don’t devolve into personal attacks. No foul language. Comments will be monitored by ASBMB staff members.)
In trying to come up with a name for this blog, I happened to chance upon a name, Warren Weaver. Does it ring a bell? It didn’t with me.
With a click in Wikipedia, I soon learned about a man who is said to have coined the term “molecular biology.”
I am of that certain generation where the term “molecular biology” was well accepted into our lingo and was already a bona-fide field by the time I became an undergraduate student at McGill University in the mid-1990s. When a word or a phrase becomes so accepted, it’s rare to question its origins. Until now, I had never heard of Weaver in the countless lecture hours I sat through in undergraduate and graduate molecular biology courses. I also don’t recall seeing his name in those huge biology textbooks I had.
So I dove into Weaver’s biographical details, found in Mina Rees’ profile on him for the National Academy of Sciences. She wrote it after Weaver’s death in 1978.
Weaver was an interesting person: He started off as a teacher of mathematics, but by the time he turned 38 he was the director for the natural sciences of the Rockefeller Foundation and wielded considerable influence over the course of the biological sciences. He was subsequently the president of American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote about the possibility of using computers to translate documents into different languages and published a book about the history of translations of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” called “Alice in Many Tongues: The Translations of Alice in Wonderland.“ A man of wide-ranging interests, for sure.
Soon after his Rockefeller appointment in January 1932, Weaver wrote a formal proposal to the institution’s trustees, suggesting that the science program at Rockefeller Institution change its focus on the physical sciences to the biological sciences and use the techniques and methods developed for the physical sciences to understand biology. Remember this was a time when proteins were thought to be colloidal blobs and well before the time James Watson and Francis Crick described the DNA double helix. It also goes to show that the notion of interdisciplinary research is nothing new: Weaver was obviously thinking about it in the 1930s, and I will hazard a guess that he wasn’t the only one.
The trustees of Rockefeller Foundation accepted Weaver’s proposal, and in 1933 the institution changed course.
The program did so well, says Rees, that:
“…the foundation’s 1938 annual report began its natural science section with a sixteen-page discussion headed “Molecular Biology.” It began: “Among the studies to which the Foundation is giving support is a series in a relatively new field, which may be called molecular biology, in which delicate modern techniques are being used to investigate ever more minute details of certain life processes.” This was probably the first use of the term molecular biology.”
So the phrase “molecular biology” is well over 74 years old … and obviously has been aging really well!
You can read more about Weaver in Rees’ work and, of course, in the place which got me curious about Weaver in the first place, the Wikipedia page.