Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 18, Issue 2, pp 207–246 | Cite as

Conceptual models and analytical tools: The biology of physicist Max Delbrück

  • Lily E. Kay


Conceptual Model Analytical Tool 
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  1. 1.
    M. Delbrück, “A Physicist Looks at Biology,” in Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology ed. J. Cairns, G. Stent, and J. Watson (New York: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory of Quantitative Biology, 1966), p. 22.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    M. Delbrück, “A Physicist's Renewed Look at Biology: Twenty Years Later,” Science, 168 (1970), pp. 1312–15.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See, for example, R. E. Kohler, “The Management of Science: The Experience of Warren Weaver and the Rockefeller Foundation Programme in Molecular Biology,” Minerva, 14 (1976), pp. 249–293 and E. J. Yoxen, “Giving Life a New Meaning: The Rise of the Molecular Biology Establishment,” in Scientific Establishments and Hierarchies: Sociology of the Sciences, ed. N. Elias, H. Martins, and R. Whitly (Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1982), IV, pp. 123–143.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    P. Abir-Am, “The Discourse of Physical Power and Biological Knowledge in the 1930s: A Reappraisal of the Rockefeller Foundation's ‘Policy’ in Molecular Biology,” Social Studies of Science, 12, (1982), pp. 341–382. Neither Kohler, Yoxen, nor Abir-Am, however, explores the origins of cooperative projects in biology in the 1920s or their intellectual roots. As a result, these authors assign to institutional programs and social trends the causal role in the genesis of molecular biology.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    , pp. 9–22.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    M. Delbrück, “Aristotle-totle-totle,” in Of Microbes and Life, ed. J. Monod and E. Borek (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), p. 52. Also delivered as lectures at various times.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    American Institute of Physics (hereafter AIP), The Bohr-Delbrück Correspondence, Reel 28, sec. 2; Delbrück to Bohr, December 1, 1954. For selected portions of that letter see p. 245.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
  9. 9.
    G. Stent “Introduction: Waiting for the Paradox,” in Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology, pp. 3–8.Google Scholar
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    , pp. 10–11.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
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  14. 14.
    Delbrück's retrospective account of his quantitative methods is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation's progress reports of 1938 and 1939. See note 80.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Later on, after 1945, proficiency in mathematics would become a prerequisite for those wishing to join Delbrück's program.Google Scholar
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    R. B. Fosdick, The Story of the Rockefeller Foundation (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1952), pp. 150, 162. In the 1920s August Krogh of the Institute of Physiology was studying the properties of membranes with methods of electrophysiology, and George Hevesy of the Institute of Physical Chemistry was the originator of radioisotope tracing in plant physiology experiments. That work often called for cooperation among physicists, chemists, and biologists, and was supported by the Rockefeller International Education Board under Wickliffe Rose.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Bohr's interest in science derived from biology. His father, Christian Bohr, a leading physiologist at the University of Copenhagen, had been active in the philosophical debates between “vitalists” and “mechanists” at the end of the nineteenth century and in many ways shaped his son's interests. As a young boy Niels Bohr worked in his father's laboratory and participated in philosophical discussions that took place in his father's house, where scientists and philosophers frequently gathered. For further discussion see G. Holton, “The Roots of Complementarity,” Daedalus (Fall 1970), pp. 1015–55.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    California Institute of Technology (hereafter CIT), Delbrück, Oral History transcipts, E & S March-April, p. 24.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    N. Bohr, “Light and Life,” Nature, 131 (1933), pp. 457–458.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    L. Rosenfeld, “Niels Bohr in the Thirties: Consolidation and Extension of the Conception of Complementarity,” in Niels Bohr: His Life and Work as seen by his Friends and Colleagues, ed. S. Rosental (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publ. Co., 1967), p. 134.Google Scholar
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    CIT, Delbrück, Oral History, p. 26.Google Scholar
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    F. K. Ringer, “The German Academic Community,” in Organization of Knowledge in Modern America ed. A Oleson and J. Voss (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp. 409–429.Google Scholar
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    H. J. Muller, “The Gene as the Basis for Life,” Proc. Int. Cong. Plant Sci., 1 (1926), pp. 897–921; idem, “Artificial Transmutations of the Gene,” Science, 66 (1927), pp. 84–87. The role of Muller in introducing new concepts and methods to gene research is discussed in A. E. Carlson, “An Unacknowledged Founding of Molecular Biology: H. J. Muller's Contributions to Gene Theory, 1910–1936,” J. Hist. Biol., 4 (1971), pp. 149–170.Google Scholar
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    M. Demerec, “Eighteen Years of Research on the Gene,” Cooperation in Research (Washington, D. C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication, 1938), 501, pp, 295–314.Google Scholar
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    Th. Dobzhansky, Genetics and the Origins of the Species (New York: Columbia University Press, 1937), p. 10.Google Scholar
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    H. J. Muller, “Variations Due to Change in the Individual Gene,” Amer. Nat., 56 (1922), pp. 32–50.Google Scholar
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    Muller, “Artificial Transmutations of the Gene,” pp. 84–87.Google Scholar
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    The Rockefeller Foundation viewed his work with enthusiasm and supported his research from as early as 1930. Rockefeller Foundation Archives (hereafter RF), W. E. Tisdale log, 1930–1931, p. 143.Google Scholar
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    Muller, “Artificial Transmutations of the Gene,” p. 87.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    CIT, Delbrück, Oral History Transcripts. Delbrück described Timofeff's energy and wit as vital to the research group. RF, H. M. Miller log, 23 January 1935, p. 4. Delbrück described Muller as one of the few truly great living scientists.Google Scholar
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    CIT, Delbrück, Oral History Transcripts, E & S May–June, p. 21. Note 90 gives a source for the RF's description of this group.Google Scholar
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    RF, H. M. Miller log, 1932–1933, p. 10.Google Scholar
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    RF, RG3, 915, 1.1; NS section, “Conference—Warren Weaver and Max Mason,” October 18, 1932. This statement supports my argument that the intellectual preconditions for molecular biology had been established well before Weaver's program.Google Scholar
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    The administrative relations between the New York and Paris offices are described in detail in the RF Register, RG 6.1, Field Offices, Paris.Google Scholar
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    The problem of cross-fertilization in traditional fields and the formation of hybrid disciplines within the university has been dealt with extensively by J. Ben-David in “Scientific Growth: A Sociological View,” Minerva, 2 (1964), pp. 455–76. He argues that if interdisciplinary specialization is required in order to develop an innovation, the organization of university departments often inhibits it. In general, it is necessary for graduate students to be identified with a single department; graduates of joint programs usually must eventually decide on a position in one of the parent disciplines. This suggests that the RF may in fact have created the institutional mechanisms that facilitated such cross-fertilization, both within and outside the university system. This role of the Rockefeller Foundation is ignored in Diana Crane's book, Invisible Colleges: Diffusion of Knowledge in Scientific Communities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972) in which modes of interaction between scientific communities are extensively explored.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Miller's frequent communications with these scientists appear in his logs through the 1930s.Google Scholar
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    N. W. Timofeeff-Ressovsky, K. G. Zimmer, and M. Delbrück, “Über die Natur der Genmutation und der Genstruktur,” Nachr. Ges. Wiss. Göttingen, Math.-phys. Kl., 6 (1935), 190–245.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    For discussion on the “Delbrück Model” and the “Three-Man-Work” see R. C. Olby, The Path to the Double Helix (London: Macmillan Co., 1974), pp. 232–235. See also notes 111 and 112.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    The “target theory” had been developed in the early 1920s in Europe, where several institutes were engaged in biophysics research. F. Dessauer (1922) and J. A. Crowther (1926–1927) were the first to work out estimates of gene size based on the “sensitive volume” method. However, by 1930 Muller had rejected these estimates. For further discussion see A. A. Carlson, The Gene: A Critical History (Philadelphia: W. B. Sanders Co., 1966), chap. 18. I have obtained additional information about the growth of biophysics in Europe from an interview with the biophysicist Alexander Holaender, Oral History tape, March 1983, Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
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    , pp. 232–235.Google Scholar
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  44. 44.
    H. J. Muller, “The Need of Physics in Attack on Fundamental Problems of Genetics,” Sci. Mon., 44 (1936), pp. 214.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    H. J. Muller, “The Need of Physics in Attack on Fundamental Problems of Genetics,” Sci. Mon., 44 (1936), pp. 211.Google Scholar
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    RF. RG 1.1, 713D, 4.46; “Report on University of Copenhagen-Biophysics” (1940), p. 1.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    AIP, The Bohr-Delbrück Correspondence, Reel 18, Bohr to Delbrück, 22 November 1935.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    RF, H. M. Miller log, 23 January 1935, p. 4.Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    RF, RG1.1, 713D, 4.47; Miller to Bohr, 21 September 1936.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    “Copenhagen-Biophysics,” p.2.Google Scholar
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    CIT, Delbrück, Oral History, May-June 1980, p. 22.Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    CIT, sec. 8, 40.32, “Fellowships”; Delbrück to Miller, 12 December 1936.Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    CIT, selbrück, Oral History Transcripts, E & S May-June, p. 21.Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    The foundation's fellowship requirements, implicit in its correspondence with applicants, are most succinctly spelled out in a curt rejection of the noted biologist Heinz Fraenkel-Conrat. RF, RG 6.1, 1.1, 9.91; Miller to Fraenkel-Conrat, 18 March 1936.Google Scholar
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    CIT, sec. 8, 40. 32, “Fellowships,” RF, 1936–1939.Google Scholar
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    This point is emphasized in the RF report quoted on p. 236.Google Scholar
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    N. C. Mullins, in Social Networks among Biological Scientists (New York: Arno Press, 1980), has investigated the social foundations of communication networks. Not suprisingly, he finds that cultural similarity (measured in orientations) does indeed exist between those who are socially close and that informal communication networks formed by scientists are related to the “culture of science.”Google Scholar
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    CIT, sec. 8, 49; Personal Records Questionnaire of the Royal Society.Google Scholar
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    RF, 915, 2.16; “Report of the Committee of Review,” November 1938. See also Kohler's article on Warren Weaver and the Rockefeller Foundation.Google Scholar
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    W. M. Stanley, “Isolation of a Crystalline Protein Possessing the Properties of Tobacco-Mosaic Viruses,” Science, 81 (1935), pp. 644–645.Google Scholar
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    Muller, “The Need for Physics in Genetics,” p. 213.Google Scholar
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    CIT, sec. 7, 36.1; “Riddle of Life,” 1937 (in German).Google Scholar
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  65. 65.
    This point is elaborated in the RF progress report and quoted here on p. 232, Note 80.Google Scholar
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    RF, RG 10, R7; “Fellowships,” October 1937.Google Scholar
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    RF, RG 1.2, 200D, 194.1823; “NS Committee Meeting,” aid to CSH, 1939.Google Scholar
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    RF, RG 10, R7; “Fellowships,” April 1938. RF reports give his itinerary.Google Scholar
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    The term “geneticists' network” is used here in its broadest sense, similar to the loosely defined scientific network sharing a useful paradigm as defined by T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), pp. 12–13, 18–20. The unifying paradigm for these geneticists was the physical gene, and the unifying research goal within it was understandably self-replication and mutations in higher organisms. However, N. C. Mullens in “The Development of a Scientific Specialty: The Phage Group and the Origins of Molecular Biology,” Minerva, 10 (1972), pp. 51–82, characterizes the emergence of molecular biology as a new discipline by the four developmental stages of its scientific network: paradigm group, communication network, cluster, specialty. From this point of view, each center along Delbrück's route represented a cluster that, through close communication with other clusters engaged in similar research, joined to form a communication network. All these networks would gather at annual genetics meetings and symposia such as those at Cold Spring Harbor, to compare results and to coordinate research.Google Scholar
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    CIT, Delbrück, Oral History Transcripts, E & S May–June 1980, p. 23.Google Scholar
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    RF, RG1.2, 200D, 194.1823; materials accompanying a grant application for CSH laboratory stressing “the importance of exact sciences, particularly physics, in future research in genetics”; R. G. Harris (CSH director) to Warren Weaver, 14 October 1932.Google Scholar
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    CIT, Morgan Papers, Morgan to Mason, 15 May 1933. Quoted in a discussion on the history of the Kerckhoff Laboratories in Garland Allen, Thomas Hunt Morgan: The Man and His Science (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), chap. 9.Google Scholar
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    CIT, Delbrück, Oral History, May–June 1980, p. 22.Google Scholar
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    RF, RG10, “Fellowships”; Hanson's interview, 8 December 1937.Google Scholar
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    By the 1930s the international sensation of the bacteriophage discovery of 1917, and the heated medical controversy that followed, had long been forgotten and the foundation's support for research on “filterable viruses” had dwindled to extinction. Felix d'Herrelle's discovery of viruses that devoured bacteria, which emphasized its medical potential and generated the “Great Hope of Universal Therapy and Prophylaxis” at a time when antitoxins and antibiotics were still in the research stage, did result in some basic research, however. The handful of phage investigators had established several points: (1) phage attached itself to bacteria and multiplied inside by killing the bacteria within thirty minutes; (2) there were about fifty different phage viruses lethal to different bacteria, and they could be categorized based on serological cross-reactions; (3) phage was submicroscopic and composed of equal proportions of nucleic acids and protein; (4) phage concentration was proportional to the number of plaques it formed, as established by the d'Herrelle essay. This information was available to Delbrück and was cited in his papers. For the history of bacteriophage see G. S. Stent, Molecular Biology of Bacterial Viruses (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1963), chap. 1, and for a popular account of the phage discovery see Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1925), chap. 28.Google Scholar
  77. 77.
    CIT, Delbrück, Oral History, May–June 1980, p. 24.Google Scholar
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    M. Delbrück, “Experiments with Bacterial Viruses (Bacteriophages),” Harvey Lect., 41 (1945–1946), p. 161.Google Scholar
  79. 79.
  80. 80.
    RF, RG10, R7, “Fellowships,” June 1938.Google Scholar
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    Emory L. Ellis and Max Delbrück, “The Growth of Bacteriophage,” J. Gen Physiol., 22 (1939), pp. 365–384.Google Scholar
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    RF, RG10, R7, “Fellowships”; Morgan to Miller, 27 April 1938.Google Scholar
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    RF, RG10, R7, “Recommendation for Renewal.”Google Scholar
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    These papers are Max Delbrück, “Statistical Fluctuations in Autocatalytic Reactions,” J. Chem. Physics 8 (1940), pp. 120–124; edem, “Radiation and the Hereditary Mechanism,” Amer. Nat., 74 (1940), pp. 350–362; idem, “The Growth of Bacteriophage and Lysis of the Host,” J. Gen. Physiol., 23, (1940), pp. 643–660; idem, “Absorption of Bacteriophage under Various Physiological Conditions of the Host,” J. Gen. Physiol., 23 (1940), pp. 631–642; Linus Pauling and Max delbrück, “The Nature of Intermolecular Forces Operative in Biological Processes,” Science, 92 (1940), pp. 77–79.Google Scholar
  85. 85.
    Carnegie Institute of Washington (hereafter CIW), Dept. Genetics: Special Projects, Drawer 4, T. H. Morgan, file 1; Bush to Morgan, 19 September 1939.Google Scholar
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    RF, RG1.1, 200D, 164.2015, Delbrück to Morgan, 5 September 5 1939.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., Morgan to Hanson, 7 September 1939.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., Hanson to Morgan, 8 September 1939.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., Weaver to Morgan, 20 September 1939.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., Tisdale to Slack (Vanderbilt Dept. Physics), 8 September 1939.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., Morgan to Weaver, 27 September 1939.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., Delbrück to Slack, 31 October 1939.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., Special Research Aid Fund-European Scholars; approved 13 December 1939.Google Scholar
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    CIW, Dept. Genetics: Summer Symposium CSH-1941, Draft of the Director's Report for the Annual Meeting, 29 July 1941.Google Scholar
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    M. Delbrück and S. E. Luria, “Interference between bacterial Viruses. I. Interference between Two Bacterial Viruses Acting on the Same Host, and the Mechanism of Virus Growth,” Arch. Biochem., 1 (1942), pp. 111–141; S. E. Luria and M. Delbrück, “Interference between Inactivated Bacterial Virus and Active Virus of the Same Strain and of Different Strain,” Arch. Biochem., 1 (1942), pp. 207–218.Google Scholar
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    S. E. Luria and M. Delbrück, “Mutations of Bacteria from Virus Sensitivity to Virus Resistance,” Genetics, 28 (1943), pp. 491–511.Google Scholar
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    Luria and Delbrück, “Interference,” p. 217.Google Scholar
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    For a discussion on this point see H. F. Judson, The Eighth Day of Creation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), p. 63.Google Scholar
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    S. E. Luria, M. Delbrück, and T. F. Anderson, “Electron Microscope Studies of Bacterial Viruses,” J. Bacteriol., 46 (1943), pp. 57–77.Google Scholar
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    Delbrück, “Experiments with Bacterial Viruses,” p. 162.Google Scholar
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    M. Delbrück, “A Physicist Looks at Biology,” in Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology ed. J. Cairns, G. Stent, and J. Watson (New York: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory of Quantitative Biology, 1966), p. 14.Google Scholar
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    M. Demerec and U. Fano, “Bacteriophage-Resistant Mutants in E. Coli,” Genetics, 30 (1945), pp. 119–136.Google Scholar
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    This service, modeled after the Drosophila Information Service, was designed for the rapid dissemination of standard materials and methods for workers in phage genetics.Google Scholar
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    T. Anderson, “Electron Microscopy of Phages,” in Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology, p. 73.Google Scholar
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    The purpose and the content of the first phage course are outlined in “The Max Delbrück Laboratory Dedication Ceremony” (New York: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 1981).Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 7.Google Scholar
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    The accounts of most phage students placed him in the role of Socrates, a perennial critic and skeptic who challenged all results for the sake of refinement.Google Scholar
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    That purpose was stated by Delbrück, “Experiments with Bacterial Viruses,” p. 162. It is also confirmed by G. Stent, “Introduction,” p. 6.Google Scholar
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    In addition to Morgan, Demerec, and Muller, Lewis Stadler from the University of Missouri referred to him as “one of the outstanding geneticists outside of Mo”.Google Scholar
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    E. Schrödinger, What is Life? (New York: Macmillan Co., 1944).Google Scholar
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    E. Schrödinger, What is Life? (New York: Macmillan Co., 1944). chap. 5.Google Scholar
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    . pp. 68–69.Google Scholar
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    D. Fleming, “Emigre Physicists and the Biological Revolution,” in Perspectives in American History, 2 (1968), pp. 152–189, lists two other factors that contributed to the migration: disillusionment after World War II with the destructiveness of physics, and the overgrowth of physics into a “science by committee,” which diminished individual creativity.Google Scholar
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    Schrödinger's contribution to the history of molecular biology is discussed from different angles by R. E. Olby, “Schrödinger's Problem: What is Life?,” J. Hist. Biol., 4 (1971), pp. 119–148; E. J. Yoxen, “Where does Schrodinger's What is Life? Belong in the History of Molecular Biology,” Hist. Sci., 17 (1979), pp. 17–52.Google Scholar
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    M. Demerec, “Annual Report,” Carnegie Institution of Washington Year Book, 1946–1947 (Baltimore: Lord Baltimore Press, 1947), p. 127.Google Scholar
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    AIP, The Bohr-Delbrück Correspondence, December 1, 1954.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company 1985

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lily E. Kay
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of the History of ScienceThe Johns Hopkins UniversityBaltimoreUSA

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