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Science as Autobiography

Science as Autobiography: The Troubled Life of Niels Jern

Thomas Söderqvist
Translated by David Mel Paul
Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    Science as Autobiography
    Book Description:

    This biography probes the unusual mind, the dramatic life, and the outstanding scientific work of Danish-born immunologist Niels Jerne (1911-1994). Jerne's Nobel Prize-winning achievements in the field of immunology place him in the pantheon of great twentieth-century biomedical theorists, yet his life is perhaps even more interesting than his science.Science as Autobiographytells Jerne's story, weaving together a narrative of his life experiences, emotional life, and extraordinarily creative scientific work.A legendary figure who preferred an afternoon of conversation in a Paris wine bar to work in the laboratory, Jerne was renowned for his unparalleled powers of concentration and analytical keenness as well as his dissonant personal life. The book explores Jerne the man and scientist, making the fascinating argument that his life experience and view of himself became a metaphorical resource for the construction of his theories. The book also probes the moral issues that surrounded Jerne's choice to sacrifice his family in favor of scientific goals and the pursuit of excellence.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12871-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xxviii)

    In December 1984, a few days after Niels Kaj Jerne received the Nobel Prize in Stockholm for his contributions to the understanding of the human immune system, I attended his address to the public. A large crowd, including many medical doctors and students, had come to get an overview of what was going on in immunology, a field that had just been placed on the social and political agenda by the growing AIDS epidemic.

    Jerne, however, had no intention of satisfying his audience’s need for clinical or experimental news bulletins. AIDS is of no interest to immunologists, he had told...

  6. I The Making of a Romantic Character (1911–1947)

    • 1 “I Have Never in My Life Felt I Belonged in the Place Where I Lived”
      (pp. 3-15)

      On several occasions during his life, Niels Jerne considered writing an autobiography, and in 1985, six months after receiving the Nobel Prize, he came close to doing so. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation wanted to include him in a series of current outstanding scientists, a project for which he would be well paid. Nevertheless, Jerne hesitated. He was not sure, he wrote, whether it made sense to write an autobiography at a time when there were so many scientists.

      In particular he wondered where to begin—with his ancestors or his birth? Or a little more unconventionally, at the end,...

    • 2 “Stylistically, I’m Best at Irony”
      (pp. 16-28)

      “Right now I am, I think, madly in love with J[e]anine Reyss, a French girl here from Kralingen,” wrote sixteen-year-old Niels Kaj Jerne in his first “Dagboek” in the spring of 1928. The tall, slender, dark-haired daughter of a pastor of the Walloon reformed congregation of Rotterdam stimulated his poetic talents and awakened his lukewarm interest in the French language:

      Je t’aime Jeanine, je t’aime toujours

      C’est tout que je veux vous dire

      Je t’aime d’une grande et divine amour

      Je t’aime de tout mon coeur.¹

      The infatuation was mutual, though she was unsure of his sincerity. Maybe he would...

    • 3 “I Wanted to Study Something That Couldn’t Be Used”
      (pp. 29-38)

      By the fall of 1931, Niels had been working at Elders & Fyffes for more than three years. He got along well with his colleagues and had received a promotion. Looking back, he“felt very happy there”; it was“full of charm.”But at nineteen he was far from thinking the work had any future. He had ended up “in bananas” because Papa had been skeptical of the value of academic studies and would rather have his youngest son make a career of business, like his elder brother, Thomas. Now Niels saw before him a life in which one directorship...

    • 4 “I Have the Feeling That Everything Around Me Is Enveloped in a Mist”
      (pp. 39-51)

      As August turned into September 1934, twenty-two-year-old Niels Jerne arrived in Copenhagen with the most indispensable part of his baggage—four chests filled with books. He quickly found a rented room with a view over the Lakes and only a ten-minute walk from the City Hall Square and the Central Station.

      During the following weeks he observed the life of his new hometown with curiosity. Copenhagen looked like a real metropolis. Things seemed “to roll along” better here than back home in the Netherlands, and he was amazed at how well the Danes fared. He approved of the Danish tolerance...

    • 5 “When I Look at Other Scientists . . . None of Them Have Wasted as Many Years as I Have”
      (pp. 52-62)

      As June turned into July 1936, Niels was able to move back to Tjek and Ivar and his books in Copenhagen, at least for a while. The great intellectual happening in the Danish capital at the time was the Second International Congress for the Unity of Science, held for one week in June under Jørgen Jørgensen’s supervision. Maybe it was newspaper reports on the radical empiricists’ discussion of problems of causality that inspired Niels to throw himself into David Hume’s writings when he returned home. He also familiarized himself with Bertrand Russell, probably because of Jørgensen’s introductory book on the...

    • 6 “Now I Think Nobody Can Keep Me from Becoming a Doctor”
      (pp. 63-74)

      At the beginning of February 1939, nearly four years had passed since Niels Jerne had interrupted his premedical studies, during which time he had hardly touched his textbooks. There was nothing to do but start over. He arranged for a place in the medical chemistry laboratory exercises and took the premedical science courses once more. Most of this was repetition, which allowed him plenty of time to play chess and browse in the library and secondhand bookshops. He borrowed or bought literature on the relationship between art and medicine, on the history of medicine, and especially on history in general,...

    • 7 “To Be Able to Let Nature Reflect in the Depths of My Own Soul”
      (pp. 75-87)

      In June 1942, during the week that Niels stayed home in Amaliegade to rest from his examinations, he began an affair with the physician Erna Mørch. They had met at a midsummer party some years before and had bumped into each other from time to time thereafter. After a particularly lively gathering he had written to her, begging her pardon for having been “very noisy and talkative.” He continued with a long disquisition on the difference between artistic, scientific, and religious knowledge, launching out from his newly acquired insights into Croce’s theory of art: “The main thing is for one...

    • 8 “I Am Branded with Infidelity, and See That Open-Eyed”
      (pp. 88-95)

      After a mere week’s vacation with Tjek and the children in Løkken in the summer of 1943, Niels continued his combination of medical studies and statistical musings. The fall term continued in the surgical clinic, with courses in radiology, neurology, epidemic diseases, skin and genital diseases, ophthalmology, otorhinolaryngology, and cowpox inoculation, followed by a month’s internship at a psychiatric department.

      In Niels’s spare hours, Fisher’s statistical “bible” was his constant companion. In a sense, his preoccupation with statistics was the essence of what he called “peripheral abstractions.” But he did not have to suppress his pulsing blood and the feelings...

    • 9 “Letters Are a Spiritual Spiderweb in Which You Snare the Dreaming Soul of a Woman”
      (pp. 96-108)

      The previous two or three years had been a turning point in Niels Jerne’s life. At last he had proven himself to his parents; his boss valued him and openly recognized his intellectual capacity; and for several years he had managed to fire Erna Mørch’s desires. The nihilistic attitude toward life and the melancholy undertone that had marked so many of the letters and notes of his youth gradually ebbed. And a mood of reckless success began to break through.

      Of course one should, like Kierkegaard, speak of “either-or,” wrote thirty-three-year-old Niels to Tjek right after New Year 1945; one...

  7. II The Making of the Selection Theory (1947–1954)

    • 10 “The Happiness of Feeling Superior to a Lot of People”
      (pp. 111-123)

      In the late 1940s Niels Jerne was a widower, the father of two sons, and a middle-aged man with a medical degree. He had only to go through his internship to be certified as a physician, though the staff at the Serum Institute had already begun calling him Dr. Jerne. On 1 February 1947, a week after his final examination, he started work in the medical department of Rigshospitalet.

      Judging from the lack of archival material for that year, the internship took most of his time. The night watches gave him leisure to read; receipts from bookstores indicate that he...

    • 11 “I Think the Work Has Principal Application to Immunology”
      (pp. 124-132)

      By the late summer of 1949, Jerne had sufficient experiments behind him to be able to choose between the univalence theory and the multivalence theory. The theoretical curves derived from the univalence theory did not match the experimental data well, whereas the curves that had been derived from the multivalence theory did; hence the multivalence model permitted a “reasonable explanation of the experimental data.” He could show that high values of the reaction constant correspond to the steep neutralization curves obtained on titration of high-avidity sera (for example, standard serum), and low values to the more horizontal neutralization curves obtained...

    • 12 “Antibody This, Antibody That, They Weren’t Really Much Interested”
      (pp. 133-143)

      While Niels Jerne was beginning to identify himself as an immunologist, Ole Maaløe was heading full-speed into a study of bacteriophage, that is, viruses that infect and replicate in bacterial cells. Max Delbrück and other geneticists used the tiny phage as a model organism to understand the molecular mechanism of heredity, and during his stay at Cal Tech in the spring of 1949, Maaløe had been seriously bitten by the “phage bug.” He returned to Copenhagen full of energy and ideas and with Ørskov’s indulgence established his one-man branch of the internationally dispersed phage group in the Standardization Department. The...

    • 13 “These People Don’t Know What They’re Doing”
      (pp. 144-155)

      The local Copenhagen phage group dissolved in the summer of 1951. Watson left for Cambridge and the Cavendish Laboratory, where he was going to meet Francis Crick and begin the work that would lead to the elucidation of the double helix structure of DNA; Stent left for Paris with an Icelandic woman he had met at the Serum Institute to work with André Lwoff at the Pasteur Institute; and finally, Maaløe departed to California for a year to deepen his insights into the physiology of bacteria with Cornelius van Niel at Hopkins Marine Station.

      Jerne was left solely responsible for...

    • 14 “I Suppose I Should Do Something, Maybe an Experiment or Something”
      (pp. 156-172)

      Late in the summer of 1953, while Jerne was on his way home to the “brave Old World,” a new research fellow arrived in the Standardization Department from the new world. Twenty-two-year-old Karl Gordon Lark had just completed his Ph.D. with one of America’s leading immunologists, Alwin Pappenheimer, at New York University. A couple of years earlier Lark had attended the bacteriophage course at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and had met Ole Maaløe, who had told him that Copenhagen was a nice place to spend a couple of years if one had a Rockefeller fellowship in one’s pocket.

      Lark arrived...

  8. Parabasis: The Selection Theory as a Personal Confession
    (pp. 173-190)

    There is no reason to disbelieve that Niels Jerne had a eureka experience as he crossed the Knippel Bridge in Copenhagen one afternoon in the summer of 1954. But among historians of science the belief is widely held that eureka experiences, on closer inspection, are the result of complex and extended cognitive and cultural processes. I therefore wish to take time out from the narrative to analyze more systematically the background of the selection theory. Which theoretical traditions and cognitive resources did Jerne draw on? What role did his own experimental findings play? And is knowledge about the scientific and...

  9. III A Man, His Theory, and His Network (1954–1994)

    • 15 “My Hopes and Failures Are Within Myself”
      (pp. 193-208)

      After locking up his scientific “testament” in a desk drawer in mid-August 1954, Jerne made the last travel arrangements for his visit to California. Adda was accompanying him, but the children, now aged twelve and eighteen, would remain in Denmark, and the apartment on Amaliegade would be rented out. His many books and Tjek’s paintings made the apartment Jerne’s umbilical cord to Denmark and a reflection of his life history:“Don’t let it catch fire,” he allegedly said when leaving, “because if it catches fire I don’t come back—this is my life.”¹

      He had looked forward to discussing his selection...

    • 16 “This Theory Hadn’t Made Much of a Stir, So Now, What Was I to Do?”
      (pp. 209-216)

      With his farewell salute to Delbrück, Jerne was ready to leave Pasadena. Students, visiting researchers, and staff wrote their adieus. “Have a miserable trip; I hate you (but love Adda),” wrote George Streisinger. The next day, the Jernes flew to New York to sail back to Europe. In the week it took to cross the Atlantic, Jerne buried himself in Kierkegaard’sConcluding Unscientific Postscript(1846), a tract on inwardness that mentally prepared him for his return to Denmark. A week with the “subjective problem” was also, he thought, “a valuable antidote” to the endless suburban streets of Pasadena, to Delbrück...

    • 17 “I’d Better Make Sure I Learn a Little about Immunology”
      (pp. 217-232)

      It had been years since Jerne had vacationed with Ivar and Donald, but in the summer of 1956 he took his sons to Italy. By their own account the boys were immensely satisfied to have their father’s undivided attention for a while. Their joy did not last long, however. In the middle of July, Jerne sent them back to Adda in Copenhagen, took the train to Geneva, and found a rented room in the center of the city. At the Palais des Nations he familiarized himself with the World Health Organization’s multitudinous activities and its complicated system of public documents,...

    • 18 “Finally, My Precious, I Have to Be Brilliant and Make Antibodies”
      (pp. 233-248)

      Like a social atom, fifty-year-old Niels Jerne arrived in the United States to begin a new and unknown life. He was going to a country whose science he admired, though he scorned America in many other ways. Once again, he was assuming the role of foreigner in another culture. It is significant that the first person he wrote to after his arrival in Pittsburgh was another immigrant and foreigner, Gordon Sato, the young Japanese American he had met at Cal Tech, who had now established himself as a respected molecular biologist.

      Jerne was housed in one of the apartment complexes...

    • 19 “Like a Log Coming Slowly to the Surface of a Lake”
      (pp. 249-266)

      The Paul Ehrlich Institute was, in Jerne’s recollection, an“ancient institute”where most people went home at four o’clock in the afternoon and almost nobody carried on any research alongside the work of standardization and testing:“They didn’t want to do science at all.”He therefore set to work on a major housecleaning—to throw aside the traditional German academic hierarchies and rituals that stood in the way of his mission to modernize European immunology. He wanted to establish an institute where, as a younger assistant expressed it, you “could ask any question” and where “nothing was considered stupid.” The...

    • 20 “I Still Think That My Original Natural Selection Theory Was Better”
      (pp. 267-277)

      Jerne had invested enormous efforts in setting up the Basel Institute for Immunology. Did he feel like going on? Some doubted it: “You are and always will be a ‘gypsy,’” his friend Sorkin had declared. Others questioned whether Jerne would be able to continue without establishing a more hierarchical organization. John Humphrey thought his friend was running the institute as “a scientific commune,” with the Taborites and the Levellers as models, and imagined, as an inevitable outcome, that “sooner or later a pyramidal structure will evolve.”¹

      But Jerne was to remain in Basel almost ten years and would hold firmly...

    • 21 “Immunology Is for Me Becoming a Mostly Philosophical Subject”
      (pp. 278-291)

      After more than a decade as director of the Basel Institute, Jerne decided to retire in 1980. Roche asked Fritz Melchers, who had been at the institute almost since its start, to take over the post. Jerne was sixty-eight years old, and despite two or three packs of cigarettes a day and ever increasing alcohol consumption, he was still in full vigor. For about a year he functioned asconseiller généralof the Pasteur Institute’s new Department of Immunology, but he was not comfortable there:“Paris was cold, wet and noisy, and I couldn’t get accustomed to the Pasteur’s somewhat complicated...

    (pp. 292-296)

    In December 1986, a few weeks before he turned seventy-five, I met Niels Jerne in Castillon-du-Gard and proposed that I write his biography. He was intrigued at the prospect, but also hesitant, and it took him almost two years to accept the idea. During intense evenings and nights, as I interviewed him in his flat in Basel, he told me about some of his most emotionally vivid memories and experiences. On the fifth night, he interrupted the “confession” and demanded to see how the material would be used before continuing and before giving me access to his papers.

    He got...

    (pp. 297-298)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 299-328)
    (pp. 329-330)
    (pp. 331-350)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 351-359)