This is the 12th in a series of articles that celebrate the lives of the Nobel Prize laureates whose names grace the 125 streets of Laureate Park. These laureates are extraordinary individuals who through their lifetime achievements have made our daily lives immeasurably richer, often in ways not readily evident.
Whoever names the streets in Laureate Park has got to be a fan of The Mamas and the Papas. If you run with the younger set in the neighborhood, say, with those not yet 50, the mention of that supergroup might make you draw a blank. But for those of us who lived through the 1960s, that quartet loomed large upon that decade’s prodigious musical scene, stirring the hordes of hippies of the day to pursue a struggle against what we then called the Establishment.
Last year, near the newly landscaped Dock Lake, a Crick Alley popped up on the neighborhood map. Not a Crick Street, or a Crick Avenue, or even a Crick Way. No, this had to be Crick Alley. One of the biggest hits recorded by The Mamas and the Papas, now rarely heard, was “Creeque Alley,” a tune whose lyrics chronicled the group’s early days and that reached number 5 on the Billboard charts. Either your correspondent has an overactive imagination, or our namer of streets doubles as a part-time punster. I, for one, would bet on the latter. But has our unknown labeler also concealed, in plain sight, sundry Delphic messages within our neighborhood map that speak to the close bonds between some of our Nobel Prize winners – consider the parallel paths of the streets celebrating poets Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott – or the sour rivalries amongst others? I wonder because two of our laureates were not friends but instead engaged in a debate throughout the 1960s whose outcome had an unexpected and little-known influence on our battle to understand and control the virus that causes AIDS. This occasionally bitter contest pitted an academic Establishment, led by the man who discovered DNA, Sir Francis Crick, against a (nearly) lone rebel, the brilliant biologist Howard Temin.
For his undergraduate degree, Howard Temin kept close to his Philadelphia birthplace, opting for that magnet for brainiacs, Swarthmore College. An apocryphal account alleges that the college had to order more books because Temin had already read all those in the school library. Or maybe he had devoured all the books on biology, or even more likely, those related to animal virology, the subject that would soon become his professional passion. The field so intrigued Temin that his 1959 Ph.D. thesis at Caltech addressed certain curious properties of the Rous sarcoma virus, a cancer-inducing agent discovered in the early 20th century that produces malignant tumors in chickens.
The following year, Temin accepted a position as a professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin. There, he poured his boundless intellectual energies into experiments in his humble basement laboratory as he sought to discover why certain viruses, such as the Rous sarcoma, seemed to replicate their genetic material in the cells they infect. To biologists of the day, this made no sense. According to the prevailing dogma curated by such giants in the field as Francis Crick, genetic information traveled in one direction only: from DNA to RNA. Temin proposed that in the reproduction of certain viruses, such as Rous sarcoma, this process could work in reverse. That is, RNA could carry genetic information backward to form DNA and, in the process, reproduce cells infected with the virus. Throughout the 1960s, Temin promoted this iconoclastic view ceaselessly at countless scientific conferences. But no one listened. Francis Crick’s rejection of Temin’s theory was especially harsh.
Temin kept whistling in the wilderness, but still no one listened, until one day in 1970 when his exhaustive experiments finally produced concrete evidence for his unorthodox theory. Temin had found an enzyme in Rous sarcoma that induced its RNA to deliver genetic information to the DNA in cells the virus had infected. Temin hurriedly called his friend and colleague, David Baltimore, to tell him of the long-awaited breakthrough. But Baltimore had equally exciting news: He had simultaneously discovered, in mice, an equivalent enzyme in the Rauscher murine leukemia virus. The enzyme was soon christened reverse transcriptase, and the class of malignant viruses now also acquired a name: retroviruses. Five years later, the pair, together with their shared former mentor, Italian biologist Renato Delbucco, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for these crucial discoveries.
Up to this point, Temin and his colleagues had known of and worked with retroviruses found in animals only. Building on the knowledge gained in the detection of reverse transcriptase, the biologist Robert Gallo, then working at the National Cancer Center in Bethesda, Maryland, launched a hunt for retroviruses in humans, an effort that would not earlier have been possible. In 1980, Gallo and his team discovered the first human retrovirus in patients with cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. A few years later, his team detected the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the agent responsible for AIDS. By then, the AIDS crisis was in full force and spreading across the globe. But the work accomplished by Howard Temin had given AIDS researchers a 10-year head start in their efforts to understand HIV and develop effective medications to fight AIDS.
In 1975, at a solemn dinner marking the 75th anniversary of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm, Howard Temin rose to speak. Many in the audience, including the king and queen of Sweden, puffed on cigarettes. In his remarks, Temin noted that his work and that of his two fellow laureates had been dedicated to the prevention of and possible cure for cancer. Now, though, scanning the hall, he could not help but express his outrage that “the one major measure available to prevent much cancer, namely, the cessation of cigarette smoking, has not been more widely adopted.” Guests around the room quietly crushed their cigarettes. Not two decades later, at the age of 59, non-smoker Howard Temin was felled by lung cancer.
Not often can we draw simple and straightforward lessons from the lives of Nobel laureates. But in his lonely struggle against his own rival Establishment, Howard Temin taught us the simplest, most important lesson of all: When you know you are right, say the truth.
Next month: Gertrude Elion, Rational Drug Designer, or the Pharmacological Phenomenon