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March 2001
Vol. 4, No. 3, p 73.
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A History of Molecular Biology

Translated from the French by Matthew Cobb
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2000, 336 pp, $19 paperback
ISBN 0-674-00169-9

On the eve of a long weekend, I happened to see this book on the lab bench of one of my colleagues and became interested in it from the first glance. I took it home and read it almost nonstop in three days. A History of Molecular Biology is the captivating tale of the origins of one of the most influential modern scientific disciplines and the story of its amazing progress.

Nowadays, the successful search for a new drug and its further development cannot be done without heavily relying on molecular biology. The progress in this field, which has developed since really only the middle of the last century, has yielded fascinating possibilities for gene therapy, medical genetics, and deciphering the human genome and the genomes of various pathogens.

A History of Molecular Biology comprehensively portrays the birth, development, and expansion of molecular biology by playing on several different themes while describing a discovery or a research group or discussing a particular historical question. The great advantage of this work is that it does not simply follow the chronological order of events. On the contrary, the book is written in such a way that each chapter could be read virtually independently of others (which I essentially did myself, starting with the topics most interesting to me).
More Good Reading
Vital Forces: The Discovery of the Molecular Basis of Life
By Graeme K. Hunter
Academic Press, 2000

Felix D’Herelle and the Origins of Molecular Biology
By William C. Summers
Yale University Press, 1999

The Double Helix : A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (Scribner Classics)
By James D. Watson
Simon & Schuster, 1998

The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology
By Horace Freeland Judson
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 1996

The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology
By Lily E. Kay
Oxford University Press, 1996

The story of molecular biology is presented as a result of three parallel but different histories that have different time frames: first, how, stimulated by physics, mechanics, and chemistry, a centuries-long process took place, transforming descriptive biology to an exact science; second, the decades-long histories of various biological disciplines, mostly biochemistry and genetics, that gave birth to molecular biology; and, finally, the shorter histories of individual events and discoveries supplemented by personal mini-stories of the founders of molecular biology.

Besides the discoveries of the double helix, the genetic code, mRNA, oncogenes, split genes, and splicing that have been traditionally considered by other historians of biology as key steps in the development of molecular biology, the discovery of DNA polymerase is thoroughly described in its full historical aspect.

Importantly, the book is written not by a writer who is external to the subject he describes, but by a person who is directly involved in molecular biology and biochemical studies and is thus familiar with the pertinent techniques and scientific publications. One-fourth of the book contains a very helpful appendix that explains some of the terminology that might be unknown to the lay reader. It also summarizes the key results of molecular biology, provides a necessary bibliography, and contains notes added to the major text.

That this is a very good translation from the French should also be noted as an advantage of this book. Being a compact but essentially complete historical account, A History of Molecular Biology will prove interesting reading not only to the general public (one of the author’s major aims), but to specialists as well. I personally was pleased to learn more about the important role the Rockefeller Foundation and its manager, University of Wisconsin professor Warren Weaver, played in the origination of molecular biology. Also, it was very stimulating reading for me: Because of this book, I have reconsidered some primary molecular biological concepts.

Notwithstanding Molecular Biology’s value, I should mention that a few important things have missed the writer’s attention. For example, nothing is said about the important role that the prominent Russian–German geneticist Nikolaï Timofeeff-Ressovsky played in Max Delbrück’s understanding of basic genetics. Also unnoticed is another famous Russian geneticist and Timofeeff-Ressovsky’s guru, Nikolaï Koltsov, whose early idea of the polymeric nature of genes was well known to Delbrück from numerous discussions with Timofeeff-Ressovsky.

Disappointingly, very little is written about molecular biology’s recent history, current state, and future prospects: Chapter 18, “A New Molecular Biology”, comprises barely four pages. Modern notables and leaders of this science deserve some mention in such a treatment. On the other hand, some chapters contain boring philosophic passages that might have been better left to separate, special treatments. Despite these minor flaws, this is a remarkable work that I would recommend.

—Reviewed by

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