Seymour Benzer: humor, history, and genetics

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).

Seymour died in 2007. You can find some nice obits/tributes here and here and there’s a huge oral history interview with him from 1990-91 here.

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).



  1. gbjames
    Posted March 19, 2014 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    Brilliant congratulatory letter!

  2. challedon
    Posted March 19, 2014 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    The Eighth Day of Creation by Horace Freeland Judson is also a must read.

  3. Merileec
    Posted March 19, 2014 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    Wonderful!! I had the great joy of hearing Benzer speak at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario, a year or so before he died.

  4. John Scanlon, FCD
    Posted March 19, 2014 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    I hope he actually sent the other two implied letters, or somebody might not have got the joke.

    • gbjames
      Posted March 19, 2014 at 6:23 am | Permalink

      Since the three of them replied in the response, this surely was the case. (Besides, it wouldn’t have been as good a joke if he only sent it to one of them!)

      • Curt Cameron
        Posted March 19, 2014 at 7:32 am | Permalink

        I’ve always noticed that “getting” a joke is the same satisfying feeling I get from cracking the solution to a puzzle. Good jokes always have something unstated that the listener has to make a connection for himself. The beautiful clue here is how the two names were crossed off, and Monod’s was checked. That’s comedy genius.

        • jesse
          Posted March 19, 2014 at 7:39 am | Permalink

          The comedy genius you see there is partly serendipity…
          One reason that the checkmark and crossed names appear there is because that’s the procedure that secretaries used when they typed multiples with carbon paper at a typewriter and sent them off to cc’d recipients.

          • Curt Cameron
            Posted March 19, 2014 at 8:05 am | Permalink

            But that’s the comedy genius that I’m referring to – it’s not serendipity, that’s why Benzer did it that way.

        • Diane G.
          Posted March 24, 2014 at 10:08 pm | Permalink


      • Posted March 19, 2014 at 9:15 am | Permalink

        And it likely wouldn’t have been deemed a harmless joke, were only one to get it.

  5. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted March 19, 2014 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    Dunno why, but the subtle checkmark beside Monod’s name in the letter cracks me up.

    • jesse
      Posted March 19, 2014 at 7:37 am | Permalink

      One reason that the checkmark and crossed names appear there is because that’s the procedure that secretaries used when they typed multiples with carbon paper at a typewriter and sent them off to cc’d recipients.

  6. Linda Grilli Calhoun
    Posted March 19, 2014 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    I know we’re not supposed to say/imply that religionists are stupid, but is it possible that the reason they think we’re humorless drones is that our humor goes over their heads? L

    • still learning
      Posted March 19, 2014 at 9:08 am | Permalink

      Yes, really clever humor requires nuance and subtlety which religionists seem to be unable to process.

  7. Dominic
    Posted March 19, 2014 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    That is very funny! Jim Watson was a phage-ist wasn’t he? And Crick a physicist!

    No pressure on Greg then to produce a herpetology tome…!

  8. Kevin
    Posted March 19, 2014 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Wow. Benzer sounds like a really amazing person. Wikipedia mentions he discovered a Ge crystal capable of working at high voltages, which led to the transistor. More directly, I would have thought this work would have led to the development of radiation detectors with high energy resolution.

  9. bonetired
    Posted March 19, 2014 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    Although Benzer wasn’t part of the Manhattan project, a fair number of physicists who worked on the Bomb moved to the biological sciences subsequently because they felt that such research would be of greater benefit to mankind .

  10. Posted March 19, 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    So, about the Dunce fly… is there something there in the research to help those of us old fogies who now forget too easily? Some DNA stuff?

  11. Posted March 19, 2014 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Who says scientists are emotionless automata?


    • moarscienceplz
      Posted March 19, 2014 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      Everybody knows that scientists are actually insane megalomaniacs.

      • Posted March 19, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

        …and they only ever wear white lab coats and splash goggles…even the theoreticians and the field biologists….


  12. Leigh
    Posted March 19, 2014 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I know about the book from reading your posts. I am eagerly awaiting it. When will it come out?

  13. Posted March 19, 2014 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    I became aware of Benzer’s work by reading “Time, Love, Memory” and I’ve always wondered: how come he never got the phone call from Stockholm? His achievements seem eminently worthy.

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