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The Good Book of Biology: The story of molecular biology of the cell, told clearly for all

The Body Scientific

Many years ago, never mind how many, a biology student from Manila wrote to me about earning a PhD at Columbia University.  At the time, I was head of the PhD program in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Every year we recruited a number of graduate students who would spend the next five years taking courses, doing thesis research, teaching, and learning the craft of science.

An application from the Philippines was a long shot but we had enough funding to take a few foreign students. The application is arduous, containing the standard questions anyone applying to college knows about. We also look for something unusual and our applicant (now a successful part of American science) had two such items in his resume. First, he had built a working replica of the first microscope made by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in the late 17th century, and second, his essay told us there were only three copies of “Molecular Biology of the Cell” in the Philippines (probably an underestimate), and he owned two of them, which he had read. So, we invited him to New York where he did his thesis in my lab.

 

I confess I have buried the lede, which is the story of “Molecular Biology of the Cell.” By 1979, scientists could sequence DNA, find and manipulate specific genes, and had discovered that the cells of higher organisms had molecular innovations that bacterial cells lacked. Immunology advanced, cell biology, and other fields developed. These advances deserved a clearly written book for students, and frankly, for their teachers, who knew specific fields like bacterial genetics, but were vague on other areas of biology where we knew molecular biology was going to lead us. If today science can make mRNA vaccines and produce therapeutic proteins to control inflammation, among other astonishing practical discoveries, which are due in part to the fact that our students and their mentors studied from “Molecular Biology of the Cell.”

The first edition came out in 1983 from Garland Publishing, a firm with an interest in scientific textbooks. Garland was owned by Elizabeth (Libby) and Gavin Borden of New York and Norfolk, Conn. The first edition was planned in Norfolk. The idea for a new book came from Jim Watson, the Nobel Prize winning Director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories on Long Island, whose previous books, the Molecular Biology of the Gene and The Double Helix covered an earlier period.  Jim Watson and Gavin Borden knew each other and because, according to Libby, Jim thought Gavin was fun, Garland became the publisher.

 

Recruiting six excellent scientists to cover all aspects of cell and molecular biology was difficult.  They had other things to do; all ran labs and taking summers to write a book was hard for them and their families, who were not allowed at writing sessions. The 1983 edition defined the style and the process of writing and editing. The diagrams and photographs were created and frequently revised as the text changed.  The story of this period has been captured in a manuscript by Heather Ann Burton titled, A Window on Collaboration: The Story of Molecular Biology of the Cell. It has not been published, but it is a trove of information about the authors and publishers, their personalities, tensions, and capacity for cooperation.  The spirit of collaboration comes through.

Libby says that the first edition was difficult because they were creating from a blank slate. Garland had invested quite a lot of money but neither Libby nor Gavin knew how many copies they would sell. She thought a hundred or so in the first few weeks. In the event, they sold tens of thousands in the first six months. The seventh edition, much advanced in science and publishing formats, will appear on July 1, 2022. Most of the original authors, American and British, remain. Bruce Alberts, a legendary scientist and passionate supporter of science education is now the lead author.

What made it so good? Clarity. Simple declarative sentences, excellent headings, and colored diagrams backed by images make it a joy. The book was beautifully designed. This was a relief from earlier texts, some of which I had fought through as an undergraduate or graduate student.  The hardbound copy (even the 4th edition) was described by Libby as too heavy to pick up, but too interesting to put down, which is true. One of my colleagues, preparing for a lecture, held a hard copy to his chest, did crunches, and then looked up muscle contraction. It’s a versatile book.

 

Richard Kessin is Emeritus Professor of Pathology and Cell Biology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. He and Galene Kessin live in Norfolk. Email: Richard.Kessin@gmail.com; website with other essays: RichardKessin.com. I thank Libby Borden for her memories and Heather Ann Burton for her history of the collaboration.

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