Thursday, August 13, 2015

Philip Bardwell Hadley urges Henry Dawson to be more 'forward'

In 1933, just before he himself abruptly left a wonderful research job at the University of Michigan for a much more humdrum job as a bacteriologist at Pittsburgh's Western Pennsylvania Hospital, Professor Philip Hadley wrote a long letter to Dr Martin Henry Dawson.

We know about this letter (a very rare letter that we know about that involves Dr Dawson in any form) because it was published more or less in full by Dr Benjamin White in his authoritative 1937 book on The Pneumococcus.

(The book, ironically, despite being nominally written by White, is probably the fullest account of Dawson's thinking about his life long passion, bacterial variation !)

In it Hadley urged Dawson to be more 'forward', publicly, about Dawson's revolutionary new classification scheme for describing patterns of bacterial variation across many species of bacteria.

Hitherto, each species and their variants had been studied and labelled in isolation from one another.

But regardless of their many different labels, Dawson had shown that visually and by other key tests, dozens of these different terms could be usefully grouped into one of three general categories.

But pushing his new labelling scheme meant the re-labelling (and hence implicitly questioning) some of the original labels created by his past boss and his current boss.

Dawson happily made many intellectual waves in his short life - he wasn't afraid to follow his own results to their logical conclusion regardless of how new, unpopular and revolutionary it might seem.

But he had a lifelong aversion to making waves in his personal relationships.

That's a good tack to take if one realizes that one is best suited to remaining a sturdy, reliable but intellectually second rate member of a large department at a world class scientific institute.

Don't make waves, get tenure and do the best you are capable of and stay out of the way of the department's giants of science with egos even bigger than their ideas.

But the problem was, albeit in hindsight of seventy five years on, that intellectually, Dawson was clearly the smartest person to ever work at either the Rockefeller Institute in 1926-1930 or at Columbia Presbyterian Medical School from 1930-1945.

That he lacked a Nobel prize for his efforts is not the point - when the Nobel Committees ever get anything totally right about anything, do let me know.

Though in fairness, those committees are only allowed to grant their awards to the living and Dawson died young in his forties, and in the censored atmosphere of WWII, before his ideas could be seen to have their fullest impact.

But success in getting your ideas accepted by others in the masculine world that is science is not dependent simply on the unique brilliance of them - it also needs some very sharp elbows.

Alpha Males dominate the scientific landscape, particularly at the level of large impact scientific ideas.

The diffident and modest Dawson was never going to do well there.

Hadley was very 'forward' as a scientist - rapidly dominating his own department and eventually the world wide - and relatively new - field of bacterial variation.

Until he was found to be just as 'forward' with his many - young - female - lab assistants, who did all the hard physical work while he did all the hard thinking and reading and writing.

Result : Hadley was abruptly fired by his university president.

That fate, at least, never happened to his more polite correspondent Dr Dawson....

No comments:

Post a Comment