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Mark Twain Tonight

That was the name of a stage show by Hal Holbrook, disguised as Mark Twain, and a long playing record from which I learned most of Twain’s sayings.

Which brings me to the first MWS on gene technology in 1977. The Lynen Lecturer was Paul Berg, to be the winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize, as the first to synthesize recombinant DNA.

He showed a cartoon from the New Yorker that reflected the current popular thinking about the new science that had burst forth. A worried man is standing by the bedside, clutching his stomach, with his wife looking on.

The caption. ” I have the weirdest feeling that someone has been fiddling with my genes during the night.”

The instinctive fear of meddling with nature.

Fast forward to a meeting at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington.

I went there with Stanley Cohen, from Stanford, who, with Herb Boyer, from UCSF, had developed a means of introducing plasmids into bacteria. MWS awardees in 1986.

On the platform was Erwin Chargaff, of Chargaff’s rules, that had given Watson and Crick the vital clue to base pairing. Chargaff was livid about recombinant DNA.

“Tampering with evolution ” he thundered.

Cohen could not contain himself.

He rose and shouted:

“Dr Chargaff. You talk about tampering with evolution .What has evolution given us but diabetes, cancer and the bubonic plague?”

Like a double act, Chargaff retorted:

“Dr Cohen. We may have to put up with God’s scourges, but why do we have to put up with yours?”

Chargaff was the chair of biochemistry at Columbia University, a scholar, author and an acerbic wit.

“Molecular biology is the practice of biochemistry without a license.”

Towards the end of this stressful meeting , the chair tried to soothe ruffled feelings by remarking that what he had heard about recombinant DNA reminded him of what Mark Twain had said about the music of Richard Wagner :

“It’s not as bad as it sounds.”