Inventing Molecular Biology

  • Prosperity
  • 1933

By the early 1930s, the Rockefeller Foundation had dramatically accelerated the fields of chemistry and physics through its grants. In 1932 the foundation hired mathematician Warren Weaver to create programs in other branches of science that would be equally productive. Weaver became convinced that “movement of really heroic dimensions” could be sparked in the field of biology, but that this would require bringing the new, precise tools of laboratory exploration into the life sciences, which were at that point lagging other fields. In 1933 Warren and the Rockefeller Foundation launched a large effort to find investigators around the globe with first-rate technical lab skills and convince them to tackle biological studies that could help unlock the mysteries of life.

In the beginning, Weaver called this the study of “vital essences.” Then he renamed it “experimental biology.” As new instruments and tools began to open up the smallest units of life, Weaver finally coined the term “molecular biology” for this new field. It stuck.

By visiting labs across the U.S. and Europe and then using fellowships and grants to cajole the best minds to transfer the techniques of chemistry and physics to the study of living things, the Rockefeller staff sparked many of the most prominent triumphs of mid-century science. Investigations done with Rockefeller funding included Linus Pauling’s work on the DNA helix and on chemical bonds, the Beadle-Tatum research on how genes govern metabolic processes, Dorothy Hodgkin’s X-ray crystallography, Norbert Wiener’s research on biofeedback, Albert Kuhn’s developmental biology, Boris Ephrussi’s studies on regulation of embryo development, and multiple-researcher work on photosynthesis, the function of vitamins, the effects of radiation on cancers, and so on.

Rockefeller’s molecular biology program ran until 1951. At that point the desired insights and techniques were being aggressively pursued in industry and public research, so the foundation shut down its pioneering instigations and shifted its natural-science efforts toward agriculture, where it saw need for practical solutions that could end hunger.