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“As when, upon a tranced summer-night,
Those green-robed senators of mighty woods,
Tall oaks, branch-charmed by the earnest stars,
Dream, and so dream all night without a stir.”
William Butler Yeats
The past 12 months saw the loss of three “tall oaks”—pioneers in the molecular and cell biology of chromosomes: David Prescott, Paul Doty and Oscar Miller. Here I offer remembrances of each of them, not as definitive memoirs but simply with the goal of informing the next generation about pioneers whose names they may hardly know today.
“As when, upon a tranced summer-night, Those green-robed senators of mighty woods, Tall oaks, branch-charmed by the earnest stars, Dream, and so dream all night without a stir.” William Butler Yeats
The past 12 mo saw the loss of three “tall oaks”- pioneers in the molecular and cell biology of chromosomes: David Prescott, Paul Doty and Oscar Miller. Here I offer remembrances of each of them, not as definitive memoirs but simply with the goal of informing the next generation about pioneers whose names they may hardly know today.
Together with Joseph Gall and Hewson Swift, David Prescott was among the first to recognize the vast potential of protozoan ciliates for studies of chromosome biology. He went on to discover the phenomenon of macronuclear genome reduction and this nucleus’ selective gene amplification and led the way in early studies of telomeres, this latter work setting the stage for the later exciting era of telomere research.
David Prescott’s scientific promise was recognized early in his career. He was elected as President of the American Society for Cell Biology in 1966,when he was only 40 y old. In 1974 he was elected to the US. National Academy of Sciences. From the earliest stage of his career he was greatly admired by all his protozoaon cell biology colleagues. But his career trajectory, so ascending early on, encountered political factions that kept him at arm’s length.
I recall a meeting in Palo Alto, California in 1984 at which the Annual Review of Cell Biology was being designed and launched. Each of us on the committee presented our thoughts about where each discipline within cell biology stood and was heading. Prescott offered a most thoughtful and prescient perspective on the cell cycle field but another committee member had a very different take. He was a newcomer to the cell cycle field and some at the table bristled at this disrespect, while others were enthused by this new blood. At the coffee break David said to me “Thoru, I’m heading for the airport.” I encouraged him to stay, and he did. I have always remembered this as a testament to his character. Needless to say, each and every comment he had made about the cell cycle field turned about to be correct.
Paul Doty came to chromosomes and the biochemical entity chromatin through a very different portal than that of David Prescott or Oscar Miller, viz. polymer physical chemistry. Having worked on other biopolymers, Doty had recruited Jim Watson to Harvard and gotten keen about DNA. With the arrival of the DNA-experienced visitor Geoffrey Zubay, the two of them got a chromatin fraction that was not a gel, as previous preparations had been. They thus, for the first time, studied chromatin as a particle. Their report launched the Journal of Molecular Biology on its first pages and it was a paradigm shift.
Paul Doty rose at Harvard not only because of his science but because of his recognized broader views for both his beloved institution and world peace. He was very supportive of my research on chromatin and to this day I don’t know how he had time to develop that opinion.
After the double helix and mRNA were discovered, few molecular biologists thought about seeing them for real. But some cell biologists dreamed of this and one, Oscar Miller, succeeded.
Miller’s electron microscopic visualization of “genes in action”- the iconic brand his pictures justifiably earned soon on, was not achieved without painstaking attention to technique. Most great advances require this. But Miller had the instinct to keep pushing because he knew the payoff would be worth the effort. Moreover, he had a “feeling for the material,” to paraphrase a famous characterization of Barbara McClintock.
As I have enjoyed telling students over the years, one of the key steps in the success Miller and his very able technician Barbara Beatty achieved was the particular detergent that worked, after many had been tried. It was “Joy,” a liquid dishwashing detergent. Legend has it that Miller asked the company for the formula but they refused to divulge it. So he bought up a long-term supply. I and many other admirers of Oscar Miller have forever since banned “Joy” from our kitchens. I do the dishes every night using another brand and think of Oscar each time over all these years.
In our careers we project elements of our personalities that were hewn long before we took a career path. We bring to our craft both our love for the subject both also our individualism. At the risk of being too outspoken I would characterize David Prescott as an outsider, perhaps not intended. He was never part of the intimate guild and some of us may view him empathically for that trait.
In as powerful a contrast as can be imagined, Paul Doty was a man of far greater talents than born in his chromatin research and had a larger world stage in mind. In yet another contrast, Oscar Miller was a man closer to my own background (my grandparents were farmers) and he had a personal style that was unforgettable, far more engaging than either David Prescott or Paul Doty. We can differ on how we knew these three and the company we kept with them. What can never be disputed is the collective magnitude by which they brought the study of chromosomes into the modern era.
Previously published online: www.landesbioscience.com/journals/nucleus/article/19714