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'Three Freedoms' Permit NIH Laboratory to Prosper

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

It isn't the only laboratory at NIH that has an enviably long track record of combining impeccable scientific achievement with a loose, congenial atmosphere, but NIDDK's Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) — established in 1960 to break further ground in a field then comparatively new — is a fitting poster child for what NIH labs are supposed to accomplish. Some 15 members of the National Academy of Sciences are either there now or have passed through its ranks, and its extensive bibliography is studded with scientific peaks: seminal studies of protease that laid the groundwork for understanding HIV protease; the discovery of DNA gyrase, an enzyme important in developing effective antibiotics; and studies of chromatin and DNA organization that help explain gene expression in higher organisms.


These achievements, and more importantly the ethos out of which they grew, were the focus of a talk given June 20 by Dr. Buhm Soon Park, the DeWitt Stetten Jr. Memorial fellow in the history of 20th century biomedical sciences and technology, along with LMB stalwarts Dr. David Davies and Dr. Gary Felsenfeld. Entitled, "More Academic Than a University: Three Freedoms and the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, NIDDK," the lecture portrayed NIH at perhaps its most idyllic — brilliant and charismatic lab leadership, plentiful resources, and scientists trusted to follow their own instincts.

Drs. Gary Felsenfeld (l), Buhm Soon Park (c) and David Davies discuss the success of a 40-year-old NIDDK lab.

Park, a chemist trained at Seoul National University who has recently earned a Ph.D. in the history of science from Johns Hopkins University, came to NIH a year ago to find out what characteristics distinguished NIH as a place for research. His Ph.D. thesis had been on the history of quantum chemistry, so he chose as his target a laboratory that combined a wealth of training in both physics and chemistry — the LMB.

Ever since it was organized 40 years ago by then NIAMD scientific director Dr. DeWitt Stetten, Jr., LMB has had a distinctly physical and molecular bent; its founding leadership was recruited largely from the California Institute of Technology, and were largely alumni of Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling's laboratory. "Four of the five initial section chiefs were at Cal Tech simultaneously," noted Davies, "and three worked with Pauling."

What the recruits found at NIH was an institution that prized independent pursuit of knowledge. Park quoted a 1965 report to then President Lyndon Johnson on NIH's operation: "The NIH scientist has at least as much, and probably more 'academic' freedom than his university counterpart...He chooses his own research project and determines his own direction of approach. He finds it relatively easy to secure modern equipment...He has fewer distractions to keep him away from his laboratory — faculty meetings, committee activity, and the like...Not being in an educational institution, he need not teach; he can devote all his time to research."

Park then reviewed a 1988 Institute of Medicine report on NIH's intramural programs, which touted "three freedoms": freedom to choose research topics, freedom to devote all working hours to research, and freedom from the need to obtain grants.

What bureaucracy was on hand had the scientists' interests at heart: enlightened institute directors, solicitous scientific directors, and lab chiefs with uncommon empathy and ability to inspire. These three levels — Park termed them "semi-permeable membranes" — assured that bench scientists felt "only an intellectual pressure that they have to show that they are doing excellent and productive research."

Three personalities loomed large in Park's overview: NIH director (1955-1968) Dr. James Shannon, who presided over NIH's "golden years," and who always valued basic over applied research; Stetten, who said, "The greatest return will be secured if the mature scientist is allowed and encouraged to select the problems on which he will work"; and Dr. Gordon Tomkins, who is credited with establishing what Felsenfeld called the "terminally optimistic" style of the lab. Noted Park, "Tomkins became the lab chief in 1962, but his influence was not through this position. Tomkins was indeed an extraordinary person. He was an M.D./Ph.D., an expert in hormone studies, and a jazz musician of professional quality (he had played with Stan Kenton and Charlie Barnet prior to his NIH years). His knowledge was astonishingly diverse, and his memory was simply legendary. But his great talent was in the realm of communication with fellow scientists."

Park touched on other felicities of intramural NIH life — the luncheon seminar groups, some of which have today ripened into the more-formal interest groups; the evening courses for scientists that are now administered by the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences; the Assembly of Scientists at NIDDK; and the still-extant collegiality and cross-reactivity epitomized by the annual Research Festival. All of these factors contribute to an academic atmosphere that is decidedly un-federal, and still an attraction to young minds.

Park concluded his lecture with a close look at the whimsical poster that advertised his talk; it featured a painting showing more than 200 youngsters involved in some 80 activities — "Children's Games" by 16th century Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel, the Elder. Pointing out youngsters rolling hoops, riding hobbyhorses and playing with tops, Park observed, "They are playing alone, in a small group, or a big group. No one directs them to play this or that game. They are free, self-directed, grouping and regrouping. While playing together, they become friends. This painting is my visualization of the NIH campus, and especially scientists in the Laboratory of Molecular Biology."

Park ended his lecture with a look at a whimsical poster that advertised his talk. Showing more than 200 youngsters involved in some 80 activities, "Children's Games" (a section of which is shown above) by 16th century Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel, the Elder, features youngsters rolling hoops, riding hobbyhorses and playing with tops. Park observed, "They are playing alone, in a small group, or a big group. No one directs them to play this or that game. They are free, self-directed..."

The lecture wrapped up with overviews of the LMB by Davies and Felsenfeld, whose genealogies of laboratory "founders and successors" formed a tapestry of distinguished achievement. Davies, in particular, emphasized the explosive growth of knowledge in determining protein structure, a field he helped pioneer. Some 3,500 new structures are reported each year, he said. "There are 50 new structures reported every week — it's impossible for the individual to keep up with any more."

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