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In her new book, Nobody Won a Nobel, Jean Bullard tells the labyrinthine tale of a vital discovery, its suppression, and its resurrection with a lively story of science, scientists, and human bloody-mindedness, written with the non-scientific reader in mind.
So what's the discovery? Ask almost anyone what genes are made of, and most will say DNA. Ask who got a Nobel Prize for working this out and you'd learn that nobody got a Nobel for making the most significant and fundamental breakthrough in all of genetics.
Oswald T. Avery was hired in 1913 by New York's Rockefeller Institute to develop a cure for lobar pneumonia, which was killing 50,000 Americans every year. Avery focused on Pneumococcus, the "bug" that causes this lethal disease. By 1934, his efforts had cut the death rate in half, but he wasn't satisfied. What substance, he wondered, enables Pneumococcus to avoid the human immune system, and to transmit its deadly virulence to its bacterial cousins? For 15 years, he kept on asking questions and designing unique experiments to answer them.
His 1943 conclusion - that the genes of Pneumococcus are made of DNA - outraged the geneticists of the day. But Avery's most prominent and unyielding adversary was not a geneticist at all.
Alfred H. Mirsky headed Rockefeller's hemoglobin laboratory, and he made it his personal business to discredit both message and messenger. Mirsky was so well respected and influential that few American scholars dared support Avery openly.
Mirsky's campaign was oddly one-sided, for Avery took no part in the subsequent controversy. In his view, true science should need no marketing, it ought to stand for itself.
Mirsky's calumny spread all the way to Sweden. Even when Avery's claim had been proven beyond dispute, the Nobel Committee still refused to acknowledge him. Many believe this is the most glaring omission ever made. Committees often reach puzzling decisions, but why did Mirsky have it in for Avery? Best-selling author Michael White says "nobody seems to know." But White didn't dig hard enough. Author Jean Bullard did, and what she found out made other famed scientific disputes look wholesome and rational.
Calling the older man's science into disrepute was not enough for the younger man. He also started a rumor so scandalous that its whispers persist to this day, insubstantial echoes of past animosity. Yet Avery proved too honorable for Mirsky's dirt to stick.
In 1968, the little professor's rehabilitation took a major step forward when Rockefeller University erected the Avery Memorial Gate. Rendered in granite, it's a rock-solid sign of esteem. And after some decades of waffling, most biology textbooks now give Avery his rightful place in the pantheon of who's who in genetics.
Without the Nobel he deserved, Avery may never become a household name, but right to the present, someone is keeping his modest headstone clean. All the surrounding markers bear the lichen and moss you'd expect on flat stones their age. But over half a century later, "Oswald T. Avery, MD" stands out sharply against the pristine background.
As for Mirsky, he's taken his rightful place on the Internet. Evidence for his spitefulness abounds, and his legacy (which should reflect his excellent scientific research) is now besmirched by murmurs or outright accusations of personal and professional malfeasance.
At present, Nobody Won a Nobel is making the rounds in the form of a book proposal, the medium publishers use to make decisions about non-fiction. Wish it luck!