Books about the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology are plentiful. If you haven’t read any, the best place to start are the books written by some of the Nobelists themselves: “I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier” by Perutz, “My Life in Science” by Brenner. Also, “Sequences, Sequence, Sequences” by Sanger, “What Mad Pursuit” by Crick and even Watson’s “The Double Helix” cover ‘how it was done’ and ‘what the place is like’. After that are the biographies of the Nobelists and their associates. Then comes the next layer, the comprehensive but rather dry “Designs for Life: Molecular Biology after World War II” by de Chadarevian and hell, even “The Eighth Day of Creation” by Judson is substantially about the LMB, since so many major discoveries in Molecular Biology happened there.
If your appetite is not sated after wading through all of those, then there are the books for the insiders.
John Finch wrote a book “A Nobel Fellow on Every Floor” which was enjoyable, if rather selective on who and what was included. The latest book from the LMB Press is a collection of essays entitled “Memories and Consequences: Visiting Scientists at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge”. It was edited by Hugh Huxley and was made available last summer (around the time of his death).
You can get it here
The premise of Memories and Consequences is that there were a large number of postdoctoral fellows, mainly from the USA, who spent time at the LMB (in the 60s, mainly) and then went away and had hugely successful scientific careers. At one point in the book, Tom Steitz writes that, of his friends during this period, 40% are now NAS members! The essays cover the time of these visitors in England and how it shaped their subsequent careers.
This is definitely a book to dip in and out of. The experiences are actually pretty repetitive: yes, we drive on the other side of the road; Cambridge is a very stuffy place and Max Perutz liked to be called Max. This repetition is amplified if the chapters are read one-after-the-other. Overall however, the essays are nice reminiscences of a booming time in Molecular Biology and many capture the magic of working at the LMB during this period. Brenner and Crick come to life and even Sir Lawrence Bragg looms large in many chapters filling the authors with awe.
When I first downloaded the book, I read the chapters by those whose work I am most familiar. I didn’t even know that Dick McIntosh had spent not one but two sabbaticals at the LMB. Tom Pollard, Harvey Lodish etc. followed. I then read the other chapters when I had more time.
The best chapters were those by Harry Noller and by Peter Moore who gave the right amount (for my taste) of personal insight to their stay at the LMB. I would recommend that the reader skips the chapter by William Dove and Alexandra Shevlovsky, who tried to be a bit clever and didn’t quite pull it off. Sid Altman’s chapter has previously been published and I actually witnessed him read this out (more-or-less) verbatim at the DNA50+1 celebrations – which was far more enjoyable than it sounds.
In short, I enjoyed the book and it’s worth reading some of the chapters if you have a leaning towards the history of science, but there are plenty of other books (listed above) where you should start if you want to find out what life is like inside the Nobel Prize Factory.
I’ll leave you with three quotes that I enjoyed immensely:
“I remember seeing copies of the journal Cell, where we all yearned to publish (though, I noticed, not the really great scientists, like John Sulston or Sydney Brenner). I would shudder and turn away; Cell was for other scientists, not for me.”
“Like many others who worked at the LMB in that era, I still think of its modus operandi as exemplifying the blueprint that all scientific research establishments should aspire to emulate. Pack the very best scientists you can find into a building, so densely that they cannot avoid talking to each other, and encourage them to interact in every other way you can. A canteen or dining room might be a good idea. (The facility itself need not be luxurious, and indeed, it is probably better if it is not.) Give those scientists ample staff support, and all the money they need to get on with the job. Stir well, and then be patient because good science takes time. My subsequent career has taught me that this recipe is much harder to execute than it is to describe. I still wonder how the MRC managed to do it so well for so long.”
“I learned that protein chemistry didn’t need me, that King’s College High Table was for tougher folk than I, and that Sydney talked but Francis conversed.”
A comprehensive guide to LMB books is available here
Don’t worry, book reviews will be a very infrequent feature as I hardly have any time to read books these days!
The post title is from My Blank Pages – Velvet Crush from their LP Teenage Symphonies to God. Presumably a play on the Dylan/Byrds song My Back Pages.