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The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology.

When the Rockefeller Foundation decided to support the emerging discipline of molecular biology as part of its "Science of Man" program in the early 1930s, Caltech appeared as an obvious institutional focus because of its tradition of inter-disciplinary cooperative research. Well established in the physical sciences, the Pasadena school also enjoyed a sound reputation in biology from the presence of noted geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan. Genetics was increasingly tied to physics and chemistry, and Morgan's team-research perspective merged well with Caltech's corporate philosophy of academic management Research in Pasadena soon focused on protein chemistry, bringing chemist Linus Pauling to center stage, attracting significant Rockefeller Foundation support, and establishing the chemistry division as the leader of molecular biology research. Foundation support, however, was based on more than the growth of scientific knowledge. Funding decisions were part of the commitment to societal improvement that had long characterized the foundation and had led it to embrace early twentieth-century eugenics concepts. Support for molecular biology and studies in genetics, therefore, represented an investment in social reform.

World War II had a significant impact on Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the molecular biology program. Pauling's division continued to focus on protein chemistry through its work on immunology, which attracted funding from various sources. Pauling's emphasis on protein structure, however, led Caltech away from the solution to the replication problem, which underlay the major questions of molecular biology. His elucidation of the "alpha helix" structure of proteins was widely applauded as a significant contribution, but the "right answer" to the riddle of replication came from Cambridge scientists Francis Crick and James Watson, who announced their DNA discoveries in 1953. Postwar institutional changes were also important. The Rockefeller Foundation continued to support Caltech's research, but this support represented only one source of funding for the Pasadena program. Similarly, Caltech no longer stood at the center of molecular biology research. This was obvious after 1953, as Caltech emerged as only one of several institutions investigating the details of DNA.

Despite the many changes that were visible by the 1950s, historian of science Lily E. Kay stresses that important continuities remained. Molecular biology was still defined in terms of technological capabilities and social possibilities. Pauling and other leading figures continued to view certain human abnormalities (including mental deficiency) as "molecular diseases" which might be "cured" through a better understanding of DNA structure and function. Current views are much more narrowly focused. The Human Genome Project may isolate genetic markers for specific diseases or conditions, but few observers or participants would argue for widespread genetic intervention for social reform. The technological capabilities that also defined molecular biology, however, remain central. Kay cogently argues that the "molecular vision of life" now dominates biology, to the potential neglect of questions that may not be answerable through "interventionist technology-based biology" (227). Her description of the establishment of this biology and her analysis of its implications represent an important contribution to our understanding of the social role of science in the late twentieth century.

George E. Webb Tennessee Technological University
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Author:Webb, George E.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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