A Tribute to Marshall Nirenberg—Myrna Weissman

On March 17, 2015, the National Library of Medicine held a special event, A Tribute to Marshall Nirenberg,” the first of a “triplet” of events at NIH being held to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his deciphering of the genetic code. View the event here. The program included presentations from his wife, Dr. Myrna Weissman, scholars, and Library staff. Circulating Now interviewed the presenters and today we hear from Dr. Myrna Weissman.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do?

A woman seated at a desk in an office.Myrna Weissman: I’m originally from Boston, and a Professor of epidemiology, currently at Columbia University at the Medical School and at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and at the School of Public Health. I met Marshall Nirenberg, around December 11, 2001. I was a widow and he had been recently been widowed following the passing of his wife Perola, to whom he was happily married for many, many years. Marshall and I met through a friend who thought I should know him and vice versa. We started dating and got married in 2005, so we knew each other for about 9 years in all when he died in 2010.

CN: The life of a scientist is often described in terms of their academic achievements and contributions to science, would you share something of your experience of Marshall Nirenberg the person rather than the scientist?

MW: Marshall came from an incredible family of talented, loving, and extraordinarily ethical people. Marshall himself was a very modest and very curious man. He rarely said anything bad about anybody. He was very humble and he was very curious about the world. He had no children of his own and when he got to know me and my children —and my children’s spouses and my grandchildren—we all became part of his life, and he became very much a part of ours. When we all gathered together in the house he bought in Potomac—which had a swimming pool, and which my children called “The Resort”—he loved it, and we all did too. Marshall was a very warm man, and very much of a family man, and he very much loved my children, and they loved him.

CN: The National Library of Medicine is incredibly grateful to you for your generous donation of Nirenberg’s papers and his Nobel Prize. We understand that selecting an appropriate repository for these materials was a matter of great concern to you; would you share your thoughts on your decision?

MW: Well, I’m an epidemiologist, so I approached my donation as an epidemiologist would, and with the help of my children and the Nirenberg family. I proceeded to a number of different places that might considered to be appropriate, and I met with the curators there. I found that many, many places were interested and I would have loved to have had any one of them accept the donation. But then, I wasn’t sure.

Nirenberg in a room full of electronic equipment holding a paper readout in his hand.

Marshall Nirenberg reading data in a lab, 1975
Profiles in Science, Courtesy John Neubauer

I was familiar with the National Library of Medicine, of course, but I didn’t know that much about it. As I went through Marshall’s papers, I came across the name of Allan Stypeck, from Second Story Books. I saw the correspondence between Allan and Marshall, and that Allan had been involved in donations of other papers that Marshall had made during his lifetime. So I called Allan, and he came over to the house in Potomac. It was clear from our conversation that he respected Marshall tremendously, and that they had quite a friendship. Allan knew and cherished the papers, and he knew they were important. So he became our archivist, and he advised me along the way to making the donation to the National Library of Medicine. And that was the right thing to do, because I felt the papers belonged to the NIH, where Marshall did all his work. And NLM would ensure that the papers—and now Marshall’s Nobel Prize and other medals—would be preserved for as long as we could imagine, and be made available to anyone who wanted to use them for research, education, and learning.

CN: The archive of Dr. Nirenberg’s papers at NLM is very rich, spanning materials from 66 years of Nirenberg’s work, is there a piece of the collection that is particularly special to you?

MW: Well, it’s all special, really, and the material holds special memories for me. After Marshall passed away, my kids would come by plane from all over the country—California, Chicago, New York, and South Carolina—and they would get into their dungarees, and they would start going through the bubble wrap and going through the boxes. And the Nirenberg family also came, from Texas, Mississippi, Connecticut and Florida to join us and advise. This was tough work, this took a long time. We were astonished at what we found. We found movie tickets from 1959. And we found letters from Francis Crick. All of it, and especially that correspondence, was amazing to us. But probably the most amazing are two items that I’ve not yet donated to the NLM, but will eventually. One of these items is the medal given to Marshall by President Johnson, when he visited the Oval Office with his wife, Robert Q. Marston, and Wilber Cohen. The other item is a diary kept by Marshall’s wife, Perola, covering about 10 days after they received the call about the Nobel Prize. It reveals the excitement of those days, when so many friends and colleagues came out to congratulate them, everyone getting together and drinking champagne, and reporters calling. Unfortunately, she didn’t keep the diary much past the first week or so. But it’s a lovely piece of history to have, and I look forward to donating it to the NLM.

CN: This event is focused on the genetic code chart and the work that lead to Nirenberg’s Nobel Prize, would you like to share a bit about Dr. Nirenberg’s scientific interests and achievements after this discovery?

MW: Marshall was very young when he received the Nobel Prize. He decided the rest of the work following the deciphering of the code was easy, and would not be as challenging. Others should do it, he thought, and he gave up his laboratory to Tom Caskey, who remains a friend and is himself a very renowned scientist, administrator, and director. Marshall told me that he then decided he was going to move into neurobiology, and try to discover the code in the brain. He spent several years reading and learning the field, and then he proceeded to what he thought what needed to be done, but he said it was far more difficult. At the time of his death, he was studying how a nervous system is laid down, in embryo drosophila.

CN: Tell us something we might not know about Marshall Nirenberg.

MW: A story I’d like to share with you involves Marshall having been a member of the Pontifical Council, and his participation in conference on evolution, where he gave a talk on the genetic code and evolution. The conclusion of this talk contained some extraordinary statements that I felt were poetic, and some of these words now appear on Marshall’s tombstone:

The genetic code appeared very early during biological evolution. All forms of life on Earth use the same or very similar genetic code. All forms of life on Earth descended from a common ancestor, and that all forms of life on this planet are related to one another. The molecular language is used to solve the problem of biological time. It’s easier to construct a new organism than it is to repair an aging, malfunctioning one. The messages in DNA that we inherit from parents contain wisdom gradually accumulated over billions of years. The messages slowly change with time, but the translation of the language remains essentially the same. —Marshall Nirenberg, the Vatican

The part that I think was most meaningful for Marshall was that all forms of life on earth descended from a common ancestor, and that all forms of life are related to one another. These words appear on his tombstone because they represent who he was as a person.

Nirenberg in the lab in a lab coat and gloves manipulating glassware.

Nirenberg performing an experiment, ca. 1962
Profiles in Science

I’ll also share with you a story about when Marshall first came to NIH. When he drove from Michigan to Bethesda, he arrived in the middle of the night and all the lights were on. He said that this is the place he’d like to be. And I said to myself, he has found his California garage at NIH. He really liked to work in the lab. Even until his final illness, he would go in everyday to the lab. He would go in at 11 or 12 o’clock and in his younger days he would stay until late at night. That is where Marshall was happy, tinkering in his garage. He never talked of retirement. His retirement involved him coming home at 5 o’clock, rather than at 9 o’clock or 10 o’clock at night, but he was always reading, and he was always tinkering.

After he won the Nobel Prize, he was offered many prestigious administrative jobs, but he turned them all down. He loved the camaraderie of NIH, he loved the fact that people were open and helpful when he realized he was in competition with the genetic code powerhouses that had so much help. The people at NIH rallied round and gave up their own work to help him finish the code and win. Many of those people thoughtfully came to many of his memorials, honorariums, and events. And Marshall never thought to leave NIH.  He was, from what he described throughout, very, very happy there. I think he found who he was in the science at NIH, and it was the best place in the world for him to be.

A group of about 20 people pose for a photograph outside.

Marshall Nirenberg’s NIH laboratory staff, 1960s
Profiles in Science

Thinking about all of this, I’m very taken with the wonderful quote from Joseph L. Goldstein, recipient of the 1985 Nobel Prize for Medicine, which appears on the jacket of Frank Portugal’s new book The Least Likely Man:

The Least Likely Man, engagingly recounts the inside story of how the genetic code was deciphered in the 1960s—not by Watson & Crick and their tribe of brilliant molecular biologists—but by the least likely of scientists (Marshall Nirenberg) who did the least likely of experiments (filter binding assays). Despite its backwater beginnings, Nirenberg’s table of the 64 DNA codons has achieved iconic status as the biologists’ counterpart to Mendeleev’s periodic table for chemists and Einstein’s E=mc2 for physicists—forming the first Holy Trinity for Science.

We all supported Frank Portugal writing the first biography of Marshall. None of us had any role in the book, gave an interview or a picture, and we did not see the book until this March when it was released. The fact that it is written by a scientist who was in the lab at the time of the Nobel Prize winning work gives it an accurate perspective. The book should encourage young people to follow their curiosity, work hard, and not be dazzled or deterred by famous names, places, or clubs: However, the book does not yet tell the full story of Marshall the incredibly imaginative, compassionate human being and deeply gifted thinker. If you really knew him you would realize he was the MOST likely man to unravel the code.

Stay tuned all this week as Circulating Now brings you interviews with the presenters of “A Tribute to Marshall Nirenberg.”

This article is part of a series that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Genetic Code Charts. Stay tuned throughout the year to learn more about Marshall Nirenberg and these ground breaking documents.