Spiegelman in his middle years stands informally outside a university buidling in academic robes.

In Search of Sol Spiegelman

Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Susie Fisher who brings us this post highlighting her work with NLM’s archival collections for American Archives Month. Dr. Fisher is an academic teaching faculty-member for the M.A. Program in Biological Thought at The Open University of Israel. Her article “Not just ‘a clever way to detect whether DNA really made RNA’: The invention of DNA-RNA hybridization and its outcome” on Sol Spiegelman, based on research at the NLM, was recently published in Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences.

Sol Spiegelman in lab with pipette, ca. 1965 Courtesy of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Archives
Sol Spiegelman in lab with pipette, ca. 1965
Courtesy of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Archives

Fly 9000 miles, really? Just to examine a historical collection at the NLM? Well, the editor seemed quite insistent and The Open University of Israel forthcoming. So I arrived in Bethesda on a sunny but freezing winter day in January to have a look at Sol Spiegelman’s papers. Unlike the weather, the reception at the library was warm and welcoming and the personnel were very helpful and efficient. My particular interest was Sol Spiegelman and Ben Hall’s invention of DNA-RNA hybridization. This technique had, during the 1960s, a powerful impact on the theory and discourse of molecular biology. Since the mid-1970s, it has become a core component of many DNA technologies that have revolutionized the study of biology.

Although I had found online at Profiles in Science several original documents of Spiegelman, the real measure of his scientific enterprise and recognition was revealed to me in 95 boxes full of Spiegelman “material.” I was surprise to see how much his work was appreciated both by the scientific community and the public. This is far from what one can gather from reading traditional histories of molecular biology. For example, the renowned scientist Salvador Luria, in an interview published in the Boston Globe pointed out Spiegelman’s contribution to the new field, but even more interesting, on the clipping itself, he wrote: “A small effort to set the record straight! And happy New Year! Salva.”

Newspaper clipping, hand annotated with "A swell effort to set the record straight! And Happy New Year! Salva."
Boston Globe, Dec. 30, 1967, annotated by S. E. Luria
Sol Spiegelman Papers, NLM, MS C 561 Box 1, folder 12

Playboy Magazine surprised me with an article that described the new field of molecular genetics specifying Spiegelman’s contributions to it. The cover page of the article is a prescient vision of the potential of the new genetics. It suggests that molecular genetics could be used to revolutionize biology and improve humankind (eugenics). Another major accomplishment of Spiegelman and his team, during the 1960s, was the isolation of a viral enzyme which they used to make, in-vitro, copies of the virus’s RNA. The finding generated much excitement and was described by one newspaper as creating “life in a test tube.”

A fellow historian of biology once told me that Spiegelman was disappointed not to be awarded a Nobel Prize. I noted this in an article that I submitted for publication. However, one of the peer reviewers thought that my claim needed better support. Luckily I came across a note by Spiegelman in which he indeed contemplated the possibility: “If the Nobel committee for Chemistry considers that this award should be made primarily for the development of the RNA:DNA molecular hybridization and for the implications to biology of these macromolecular interactions, then may I respectfully suggest that the committee consider the possibility of making this award jointly to Professor Paul Doty of Harvard University and Professor Spiegelman of Columbia University.”

It is beyond the scope of this brief note to detail everything I found in the Spiegelman collection: a thank-you letter from President Nixon for heading a national cancer committee; newspaper clippings describing what was probably the first biological patent ever; documentation of his dedication to the future career of his former students; and much more.

So yes, it was definitely a worthwhile and most stimulating trip to NLM. I hope to make further use of the fascinating items that I found in this collection.

To celebrate American Archives Month Circulating Now is highlighting NLM’s archival collections with several posts this October.

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