A Tribute to Marshall Nirenberg—David Serlin

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. David Serlin.

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

Photograph of David Serlin David Serlin: I’m a professor of communication and science studies at the University of California, San Diego, though my main orientation as a scholar and teacher is the history of science and technology. It’s interesting that I wound up in Southern California because I was born in Los Angeles to a family of displaced New Yorkers who only lived in California temporarily, during which time I was born. I grew up in Hollywood, Florida, which is where my family moved when I was four years old. Although I call San Diego home now, I’ve lived on and off in New York City for a quarter of a century, and much of that time only a few miles from where my mother grew up in Brooklyn. So I sometimes feel like the prodigal son whose journeys have taken him on a circuitous route, only to find his way back to the ancestral home.

CN: You’ve worked with the Nirenberg papers for a long time, how has his story affected you, in your work, in your life?

DS: From 1999 to 2001, I held a postdoctoral position as a historian in residence at the National Library of Medicine and worked on NLM’s Profiles in Science project. During that time, I had the extraordinary privilege of getting to know Marshall Nirenberg. This was the period when he was transferring the bulk of his scientific and personal papers to the NLM. Typically a historian works with materials that already have been processed and neatly organized. For a period of about a year and a half, however, members of the Profiles team and I traveled weekly to Dr. Nirenberg’s NIH office, or else his beautiful midcentury modern house in Bethesda, to sift through his vast accumulated papers. Amidst half a century’s worth of journals, product catalogues, and old receipts, we found amazing examples of correspondence, telegrams, manuscripts, and personal photographs that he didn’t know he still had. Throughout the process, Dr. Nirenberg stayed nearby and made himself available to answer questions and share stories. His generosity and openness made a huge impact on me as I was just starting my own career.

CN: How did your work with the collection for the Profiles in Science collection compare with your work on the Turning the Pages project?

DS: The “Profiles in Science” collection represents an attempt to convey the breadth of scientific projects that Dr. Nirenberg pursued during the course of his illustrious career, even though the core of it was, and remains, his work leading up to the deciphering of the genetic code. In curating the “Profiles” site, I tried to give a flavor for the many areas that Dr. Nirenberg investigated, so I chose items such as laboratory notes, manuscripts, and correspondence and put them into their appropriate scientific, social, and political contexts. For the Turning the Pages project, I had the luxury of focusing on one discrete object: the handmade chart that captured the moment when Dr. Nirenberg had finally cracked the genetic code for all twenty-one amino acids. Like Crick and Watson’s model demonstrating the double helix structure of DNA, Nirenberg’s chart is one of the landmarks of twentieth-century science. Although in many ways it is a humble artifact—literally, pieces of graph paper stuck together with Scotch tape—it is in fact a national treasure, and so it was a unique experience to closely examine and interpret the multiple layers involved in the chart’s creation, construction, and impact.

A digital image of the first summary of the genetic code chart overlaid with curatorial content.

The Turning the Pages interactive of Nirenberg’s Genetic Code Chart allows users to inspect the chart closely and overlays detailed information about what the chart means and its historical importance.

CN: Do you have a favorite story or document from the collection you could share?

DS: We are accustomed to public debates about the political and ethical significance of genetic engineering, and genetics research in general, in the early twenty-first century. But as early as 1961, when Dr. Nirenberg first announced the results of the poly-U experiments, scientists, politicians, journalists, religious leaders, and members of the public at large began weighing in on the implications of his discovery. Dr. Nirenberg was deluged with questions, interpretations, and even accusations about the nature of his research. So I particularly like the content of a 1962 letter that he wrote to Francis Crick, in which he displays a rather wry sense of humor: “[T]he American press has been saying that [my] work may result in (1) the cure of cancer and allied diseases (2) the cause of cancer and the end of mankind, and (3) a better knowledge of the molecular structure of God. Well, it’s all in a day’s work.” A digitized version of the letter is part of the “Profiles” collection.

A banner reading "UUU are Great Marshall" hung in a hallway.

Staff at NIH celebrate Nirenberg’s Nobel Prize with this humorous banner; UUU is the three-letter shorthand method or “code word” for identifying phenylalanine, one of the complex proteins that drive living processes.
Profiles in Science

CN: On this 50th anniversary of Nirenberg’s discovery what would you like readers to understand about the impact of his work?

DS: Following his deciphering of the genetic code and the global recognition that ensued, Marshall Nirenberg was in a position to do anything and go anywhere he wanted. Every laboratory conducting genetics research in the academic or private sector wanted him, and he was showered with job offers and promises of unlimited amounts of technical support and research money. But Dr. Nirenberg believed very strongly in his identity as a scientist at the NIH, where federal funds were committed to basic research in the interests of public knowledge. I think that commitment to the welfare of his fellow citizens, that science was a public and not a private enterprise, was an irreducible part of Dr. Nirenberg’s character. In terms of his work, it compelled his research agenda during the 1970s and 1980s when he shifted his focus to neurobiology and the genetics of tumors.

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.