A reproduction of a handwritten letter dated 12:30 A.M. Jan. 1, 1930

A New Year’s Day in the Life

A new year can be a turning point, a start of something new, a break from routine, a celebration. The historical collections of the National Library of Medicine open windows into past turns of the year: plans made, worries expressed, hopes and dreams envisioned.

Read on to experience New Year’s Day moments in the lives of a few scientific luminaries:

Marshall Nirenberg (1927–2010), future recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, spent New Year’s Day 1966 in his lab.

A formal portrait of a young white man in a suit.
Nirenberg before his rapid rise to scientific fame, ca. 1960s
Courtesy of the National Institutes of Health (U.S.)

As the race to decipher the genetic code came to a close in 1965, Nirenberg sought out new scientific puzzles in his lab at the National Institutes of Health. Many minds were still trying to unravel the mysteries of protein synthesis, but Nirenberg’s mind was on another mystery—that of the mind itself. Nirenberg’s move to neurobiology may at first seem to be a peculiar shift from molecular biology, but it makes sense when information processing is considered. There are only two biological systems that process information by receiving it, storing it, and then relaying it: the DNA-RNA-protein system, which processes heritable, genetic information; and the brain, which processes sensory, emotional, and cognitive information.

After deciding to focus his research on neurobiology, giving this focus much thought on New Year’s Eve, 1965, Nirenberg spent the first day of the new year thinking, reading, writing scientific protocols, and generally outlining the next six months of his research as he would turn his attention and that of his laboratory toward the new scientific endeavor.

As part of its Profiles in Science project, the National Library of Medicine has made available online a digitized selection of the Marshall W. Nirenberg Papers.

Charles Richard Drew (1904–1950),  African American surgeon and “father of the blood bank,” wrote this letter.

A young Black man in a bathing suit and tank top reading LIFEGUARD poses outdoors..
Charles Drew as lifeguard at Francis Swimming Pool, ca. 1930
Courtesy of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center

Like many American professions and institutions in the pre-Civil Rights era, medicine was largely segregated, and this constrained Drew’s options for medical school. Drew applied to the McGill University Faculty of Medicine in Montréal, which had a reputation for better treatment of minority students. In his application, he traced his desire to study medicine to his sister Elsie’s death, in 1920, from tuberculosis complicated by the post-war pandemic influenza. In medical school, despite the financial hardship of his first years in Montréal, Drew began to distinguish himself academically. Drew worked closely with bacteriologist John Beattie, who was then studying ways to treat shock with blood transfusion and other fluid replacements. When shock sets in, blood pressure and body temperature plummet, pulse and respiration become rapid and shallow, and tissues are deprived of oxygen as circulation starts to shut down. This was the start of his path that eventually led to his being known as “the father of the blood bank,” for his outstanding role in conceiving, organizing, and directing America’s first large-scale blood banking program during the early years of World War II.

While best known for the blood bank work, Drew devoted much of his career to raising the standards of African American medical education at Howard University, where he trained a generation of outstanding surgeons, and worked to break through the barriers that segregation imposed on Black physicians.

Formal portrait of a Black man in a suit.
Charles Drew, ca. 1949
Courtesy of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center

Drew arrived at Howard at a good time: both the university and the medical school were undergoing substantial changes. Like many historically Black institutions, Howard had been founded after the Civil War by white benefactors and was for many years run by whites. Though the faculty was mixed, Blacks were rarely appointed as department chairs or deans. The paternalistic pattern began to shift as the pool of highly educated and successful African Americans gradually expanded during the first half of the twentieth century. At Howard, this trend was reflected by the appointment of its first Black president, Mordechai Johnson, in 1926, and Numa P. G. Adams’ appointment as the first Black dean of the medical school in 1929.

In one of the lean years as a medical student in Montréal, in the dark early hours of January 1, 1930, Charles Drew wrote this moving letter addressed to the ‘baby’ new year.

A reporduction of a handwritten letter dated 12:30 A.M. Jan. 1, 1930
Letter from Charles R. Drew to the New Year, 1930
Reproduced with permission of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center

As part of its Profiles in Science project, the National Library of Medicine has made available online, in collaboration with the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, a digitized selection of the Charles R. Drew Papers.

Salvador Luria (1912–1991), the Italian-born bacteriologist, met his research collaborator Max Delbrück (1906–1981).

Luria involved in a conversation as he sat at his desk covered in files.
Salvador Luria in his office at MIT, ca. 1970s
Reproduced with permission of Marc PoKempner

Salvador Luria was inspired to pursue biophysics by his friend Ugo Fano, a physics student who regaled him with tales of the revolutionary new ideas of Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, and Enrico Fermi. After a disappointing venture into radiology, Luria was able to spend much of 1938 studying physics at the University of Rome with a faculty that included Fermi. He experienced difficulty with the mathematics of physics and concluded that his interest in the field would remain amateurish rather than professional. But his “year among the physicists” was a critical turning point for him, first, in that it taught him to think more as a physicist, and second because it introduced him to radiation biology, specifically the work of a young German physicist—Max Delbrück.

Luria finally met Max Delbrück at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society on December 30, 1940. They spent New Year’s Day 1941 in Luria’s lab, playing with bacteriophage, and made plans to collaborate during the summer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) on Long Island where they conducted their first experiments to determine how bacteriophage multiply within bacteria. That summer was Luria’s full initiation into the world of genetic science.

Two young men in a lab one stands watching the other working with a petri dish.
Max Delbruck and Salvador Luria at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 1941
Courtesy of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Archives

As part of its Profiles in Science project, the National Library of Medicine has made available online, in collaboration with the American Philosophical Society, a digitized selection of the Salvador Luria Papers.

From all of us to all of you, a healthy and happy new year! What will your New Year’s Day look like?

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