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Tilting at Windmills - Educational Misadventures in the Big Ten (Draft 02-10-06)
David L. Nanney
12. Inside SOLS
When I arrived at Illinois I was physically situated at the strategic center of School of Life Sciences. I was assigned a previously unoccupied laboratory on the second floor in Burrill Hall. This location was not accidental. In fact my ability to move into a new laboratory in a new building was a significant factor in my move to Urbana. Though I was ostensibly recruited by the Zoology Department, that department had little to offer in the way of facilities. I was shown initially the disheveled attic of the old Natural History Building where C. Ladd Prosser, now moved to the fifth floor of Burrill Hall, had once maintained pigeons. Although the area was somewhat larger than I occupied at Michigan at the time, it was in serious need of restoration. Fortunately, I was not required to pass judgement on those research facilities, because Doc Halvorson who was conducting the tour must have seen the disappointment in my eyes. He took me immediately across the street to the new building that was being occupied by the departments of Microbiology and Physiology including Professor Prosser.
I was shown to a bright new suite next to the elevator on the second floor in Burrill Hall. On the other side of the elevator was Sol Spiegelman’s research area, which consisted of the entire north end of the floor. Sol was focussed on achieving a Nobel Prize and had some serious claims to such an award. He was working on the control of protein (enzyme) synthesis in bacteria, and was the first person to achieve the replication of nucleic acids in a test tube; his work was widely acclaimed in both professional and popular publications. Sol was a garrulous pontificator who enjoyed expounding his views on molecular biology. One of Sol’s aphorisms was that the most significant interactions in biology occur in the men’s room. You might also gather that Sol was somewhat sexist. (For more on Spiegelman, see essay on Candide.)
At the other end of the hall were Salvador Luria’s specially designed laboratories. In fact, Luria never occupied that space. He was on leave at MIT the year I arrived in Urbana, and was still playing musical chairs. He had left Indiana University where I had taken his Virus course, and where he had prepared Jim Watson for better things. Across the hall from my lab at Illinois was the office of the fungal geneticist, Kimball Atwood, who was for a time the Head of the Microbiology Department. Doc Halvorson who had been head of Microbiology previously - had his office as Director of SOLS on the first floor. Because of my interests in the educational programs of the School, I spent considerable time in the School office. As the 60s wore away I became better informed about the academic politics of Illinois.
The new Building Burrill Hall had been achieved as a result of a strategy designed to combat what was perceived by some biologists as the overwhelming influence of the physical sciences particularly chemistry and physics - on the campus. The assignment of a high priority for a biology research building was purchased by the appearance of consolidation and cooperation among the independent biology departments in the college. But it was also probably an instrument for extending the hegemony of chemistry into biology.
I was not around during the early stages of the political maneuvers leading to the consolidation of biology, but I garnered a few echoes. The first stage of a program to develop modern biology was an agreement for an initiative to promote molecular genetics. I have no certain knowledge of the source of that impulse, but I suspect from subsequent experience that it came from the powerhouse in biological chemistry. Illinois had long maintained an internationally famous faculty whose research with vitamins and growth factors made them critically aware of the emerging developments in proteins and nucleic acids. The resources for strong personnel focussed on attracting established leaders in molecular genetics, and the initial site of the investment was the Bacteriology Department. Salvador Luria and I.C. Gunsalus were recruited from Indiana University in the early 50s. Gunsalus went to Biochemistry but kept strong contact with Life Sciences. Sol Spiegelman came from Washington U. in St. Louis. These were the power brokers for subsequent developments, and the School of Life Sciences was an instrument for advancing an important new initiative in modern biology.
The School had not been organized primarily for educational purposes, as I had assumed, but as a political ploy. Kim Atwood, one of the new recruits in Bacteriology served as a spokesman for the molecular biologists in the School. A few years after I came to campus, Kim informed me quietly that Illinois would never have the resources to support biology across the disciplinary spectrum, and that attempts to build broadly at the graduate level were mistaken. Apparently this political dialectic was common at the time. Jim Watson in his brief post-helix academic career at Harvard apparently opposed faculty appointments in traditional biological areas, while E.O. Wilson wanted biology to develop on a broader base. Atwood invited me to resign my appointment in Zoology and join the Department of Microbiology permanently. Molecular biology and genetics would have a firm foundation there, and the other biology departments could teach premeds and other undergraduates. This offer came at a critical junction in my career. I could abandon my interests in general biological education and focus my efforts on research and teaching in molecular genetics. I declined the invitation to stay in Microbiology permanently, moved to new quarters with Zoology in Morrill Hall the next reward for cooperative biology. This decision had consequences for the treatment of my projects for the rest of my career at Illinois.