Perhaps you aren’t aware, but Matthew is writing a book on the history of the genetic code—a book aimed at the scientifically-friendly layperson. In his research he sometimes comes across nice anecdotes or little nuggets of humor; and when he sent me this one, I demanded that he post it—with commentary—immediately. This exchange shows, contra all those “anti-scientism” flacks, that we aren’t a pack of cold, humorless automatons! And there’s some science, too: Benzer was a remarkable, and remarkably smart, character.
Here’s Matthew’s post:
by Matthew Cobb
In 1965, Jacques Monod, François Jacob and André Lwoff were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work on the control of genes in bacteria and viruses. On hearing the announcement in October of 1965, a friend and colleague of the trio, US geneticist and prankster Seymour Benzer sent this letter to Monod:
In case you can’t read it, it says: “
Dr A Lwoff / Dr J Monod / Dr F Jacob Mon cher collègue, Please accept my sincere condolences on the occasion of your being forced to share the Nobel Prize with those other two jerks when, in my opinion, you alone fully deserve it. With love, Seymour.”
On 31 December the trio replied in kind:
I came across these gems on the Institut Pasteur website while I was researching a chapter on Jacob and Monod in my book on the history of the genetic code (out on both sides of the Atlantic in mid-2015, folks!). The trio all carried out their research at the Pasteur lab, and Benzer worked there in the early 1950s, striking up close friendships with the French scientists. This letter is typical of Benzer’s mischievous sense of humour, which was legendary.
Benzer is now most widely known for his pioneering work on the neurogenetics of the fly Drosophila, work that he began in the mid-1960s. Among the things his group discovered were the genetic basis of biological clocks and the first learning mutant, dunce, a fly that couldn’t learn. (In fact, it turned out it could learn, it just forgot really quickly. Dunce was what convinced me to study Drosophila, starting nearly 40 years ago).
However, Benzer began his career in science with a PhD in physics; then, like many young physicists in the post-war world, he switched to biology. He joined the “phage group”, studying the genetics of viruses. From 1954- to the early 1960s Benzer spent his time studying the structure of small genetic region of a virus called the rII region. Using amazingly painstaking techniques, Benzer was able to describe the detailed structure of the region long before genetic sequencing was available, and to show that a gene is not a single unitary structure, but instead contains different regions with different functions. [JAC: before this work, it was widely assumed that genes were indivisible units.]
If you want to know more about Benzer, there’s an excellent book by Jonathan Weiner called Time, Love, Memory (1999), which concentrates on Benzer’s work on flies (and contains an uncredited photo taken by me on the left side of page 210). For a more in-depth look at Benzer’s work on phage, there’s Frederic Lawrence Holmes’ Reconceiving the Gene (2006).
Images (c) Institut Pasteur.
JAC: I’ve added this photo of Benzer with a giant plush Drosophila (a smaller version sits atop my computer in Chicago).