Friday, December 11, 2015

ATP, DNA and PEN : Meyer & Dawson

Ernst Chain is generally considered to be very lucky to have received a Nobel prize.

And he knew it --- at the end of his life he ruefully reflected on the difference between being lucky enough to receive a Nobel prize and on being a true genius.

Ernst Chain : "True genius consists of being lucky --- TWICE"

Remember that when you ask yourself how it was that a dying doctor and a chemist who could barely be understood in English, working in a small lab between 1940-1944, could do so much to improve our whole world with their pioneering efforts with the penicillin molecule.

Within the world of medical research, penicillin is generally shortened, as with many other important molecules, to just three letters : PEN.

The lifesaving PEN molecule was discovered in 1928 - by a tenured lab boss, Alexander Fleming.

Also in 1928, Karl Meyer a biochemical grad student, had done great things to suggest the importance of ATP - the energy currency molecule of almost all life.

His tenured lab boss handed his work over to a more favoured senior chemical colleague, on the chance the colleague might win a Nobel as he himself had done earlier.

And yet again in 1928, annus mirabalis, Henry Dawson, grad student in bacteriology, had done great things to advance our understanding of DNA as the key blueprint molecule of almost all life.

His tenured lab boss and the institute that employed both kept Dawson from publishing his heretic views on the instability of bacterial genetics, so as to not hurt the boss's Nobel chances for showing the stability of bacteria genetics.

Both Meyer and Dawson eventually got tenure, eventually ran labs - but they weren't desk bosses of big labs - more 'one scientist and one close scientific helper' type labs.

Both, perhaps because of their earlier 1928 experiences, were pretty quiet fellows in the generally alpha male world of scientific research --- but also quietly very stubborn.

With PEN they faced at times fierce resistance from their employer, their wartime government and the editors of science journals warned by science censors not to publish much on penicillin.

But with tenure and with their grad school-tested quietly stubborn natures, they determined to continue their research and to try to publish it - a situation denied them earlier as grad students with their pioneering work on ATP and DNA.

Clearly the pair had to have had some sort of intellectual brilliance to end up being involved in the pioneer days of ATP, DNA and PEN -- the three biggest biological cum medical stories of the 20th century.

But don't also discount quiet stubborn persistence in any definition of true genius.....

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