Sunday, November 14, 2010
Stanford University, Palo Alto, California (1961-66)
The name conjectures up pictures of palm tree, golden sandy beaches, and lush country. What a change after two years in Ithaca, where we were snow bound for a large part of the year, and ran from building to building on campus to keep warm in winter. Although Ithaca was very beautiful, the cold got us down, and one of the major reasons for choosing Stanford over Indiana (the other possible graduate school) was weather. In those days California was still the “promised land”, relatively empty and just beginning to undergo development. It is difficult to compare it to the California of today. We got into our old Jalopy, an old Buick, running on three cylinders out of four, or was it five out of six, all our worldly possessions, and drove across the USA. We started from Paul Reifer’s house in Connecticut, across the Mid West, and then through the Rockies and Sierras. We had never been West of New York State. It seemed that the further west one went the larger the portions of food in the restaurants, and we could not believe the unlimited cups of coffee. In New York we paid for each cup, and here we could have refills as much as we wanted for 25 cents, or was it only in the chains like Denny’s which covered much of our journey. This was a long time before Starbucks. We drove on old highway 40 across the country. With difficulty we crossed the Donner Pass, the car chugging along, making a terrible racket, but eventually arriving in Palo Alto, our destination. Even though our car was ancient we passed lots of steaming cars that could not make it over the pass. These old Buick’s with their large fins were “ dream cars” and could take one anywhere.
We immediately started looking for an apartment, and found one we could afford (at this time, rent in California was not very different from that of the East Coast). This was a strip mall style of apartments adjoining the railway line, on the boundaries of Atherton and Menlo Park, a mile or so from campus. The apartment was cheap because of the proximity to the railway line, but it did not bother us too much, since most of the trains were electric commuters between San Francisco and the Bay area. There was a large field of Chinese Herbs separating us from the trains. Atherton was at that time one of the wealthiest towns in the USA. Many retired film stars lived there in huge mansions. Shirley Temple, the childhood idol of the 1940’s was a resident. We of course lived on the wrong side of the railway tracks.
The apartment was owned by a Mr. and Mrs. Kwong. The Kwong’s grew Chinese Herbs for commercial purposes. Mrs. Kwong spoke very little English, worked in the field all day, and dressed like a Chinese peasant, large coolie hat and simple smock. Mr. Kwong on the other hand dressed like a gentleman; small and dapper, he was the property owner and his wife the field hand. They sold their herbs in the Chinese farmers market or in ChinaTown in San Francisco.
Back to the apartment: It was quite spacious, however the previous tenants must have had a number of dogs (or cats). The place was alive with fleas. One could see them jumping on the walls. We went around the apartment swatting the fleas, drowning them by washing the walls, and trying to sweep them out. They may have died out or left because of lack of food! At least they did not eat us! We had no furniture and no bed and initially no money since bank transfers were slow, so we left the apartment and drove down to LA to be with Mimi’s parents, who had moved West at around the same time, and had rented a small apartment in Los Angeles. Mimi’s father (Salo) had found a job in the aerospace industry, working first for North American aviation and later for Hughes industry. This put him back in the correct career track, as an engineer, since previously most of the jobs had been rather menial. He had a degree in mathematics from Czernowitz University, but since the war had not been able to teach or work in his subject. They had had a very tough life, first the Soviets moved them out of their house as capitalists, then the Nazi’s persecuted them and put them in the Ghetto with threats of deportation because they were Jewish, then after the war the Russian’s returned, they then fled to Romania and finally they were imprisoned by the British in Cyprus on their way to Palestine They both seemed very happy in California, after the travails of Europe, New York, and being laid off every few months.
We returned after a few days and settled down in our apartment and I started working in the lab and taking courses .
.I should mention that the Kwongs were very nice to us, and in many ways quite funny. Mrs. Kwong was always bringing us dumplings filled with pork. She could not understand why Mimi would not eat them (I did eat them). Mimi at that time was a vegetarian. She had been since I met her, out of principle. To Mrs. Kwong it was strange. She also told us in very bad English that her daughter’s husband would not eat pork, he was a Canadian and he belonged to some “ peculiar” religion that did not allow this. Difficult to understand.! Although she was from a peasant background and I am not sure whether literate or not, she was very proud of this daughter who had received a Ph.D. from Stanford, and had been photographed with President Eisenhower. There were photographs of her all over their apartment.
Stanford University had not yet reached its zenith of excellence. The biology and Medical School were just beginning to be built up with prospective Nobel Prize Winners. These would include Joshua Lederberg, Arthur Kornberg, and Paul Berg, all three of whom I got to know. The Yanofsky lab was in the basement of Jordan Hall part of the quad in the center of the campus. The building was old, there was little light from the outside in the lab, and one had to go outside the building to go to the toilet. The story was that Mrs. Stanford did not approve of men’s toilets being in the buildings. (I do not know what happened with women’s toilets). I quickly adjusted to the laboratory; there were three new graduate students that year, only one of whom, myself, completed their studies.
Mimi also found a job as a lab technician working with Dr. Clifford Grobstein, a well-known embryologist. We soon made friends with many of the grad students in both labs and in the department in general, and had an active social life, going to grad parties in the foothills, between Palo Alto and the coast where a group of male students lived. Among these today are quite well known biologists such as John Pierce, Mike Soule, David Cameron , etc. For a change we fitted in and were not “weird foreign students”. If we were regarded as such we were not aware of it ! Even the younger faculty were involved in these social events including the now famous environmentalist Paul Ehrlich and the future head of Food and Drug Administration , Don Kennedy, later the president of Stanford.. I am sometimes surprised that both Don Kennedy and Paul Berg remember me, and I have had some contacts with the latter on scientific matters.
I really did not have the background for the Yanofsky lab, and I remember my first few seminars were a bit of a disaster, not knowing how to pronounce certain scientific terms, and not really having a grasp of what I was talking about. This was the beginning of the heyday of molecular biology and the lab was trying to resolve the “ genetic” code, using mutations of the tryptophan synthetase gene, followed by amino acid analysis correlating changes in DNA with changes in the amino acid sequence. This should have been a very exciting project. I do not know why I decided that my interests were elsewhere, so that rather than joining in the group effort, which was very successful, I looked for an alternative project. Perhaps it was because my first project, to find mutants in E.coli in the tryptophan synthetase gene using a drug called proflavin did not work. I decided to work on a sideline, namely to study the integration of a bacteriophage (bacterial virus) into the host DNA. This meant working with a research associate in the lab, Naomi Franklin. This was not a good choice since Naomi was quite possessive about her work, and was always worried that I was stealing her ideas. The work actually led to a couple of publications and a Ph.D. thesis but not to anything great. Other work going on in the lab was more exciting, the discovery of suppressor genes (Stuart Brodie), and work on the structure of the tryptophan synthetase enzyme (Tom Creighton). We were quite friendly with Tom and Judy, who later on moved to Cambridge England. Tom has written a very good book on protein structure. However he and Judy are no longer together. Another student , Marsha was just completing her Ph.D. She left the lab during my first year, and went onto MIT. While there she met Tommy Berman, an old friend, whom I Have written about before and married a student with Habonim connections from Edinburgh, and thus after a few years we resumed out connections and have thus become good “ old” friends, seeing each other every few years. Interesting how this connection led back to Tommy, and to other acquaintances of his..
Others in the lab included a group of post-docs. John Hardman (today Professor emeritus at the U. Alabama) , Ted Cox (later a dean at Princeton, now still active at Princeton), Ron Somerville who joined Purdue later on and has just retired, Bruce Carlton ( dean at Rutgers University ) and Don Helinski ( U. Calif. La Jolla ) . Don became quite well known for his work in genetic engineering. As in any lab there was the usual “ hanky-panky” as one of my friends would say. One of the post-docs and one of the lab technicians were having an affair. We had to cover up for him, as his wife was always calling and we would tell her that he was doing something, such as running the amino acid analyzer and could not be disturbed. I think she later on caught on and sued for divorce. Charlie originally had a strict rule that there should be no “affairs” in the lab, and in fact had asked a post-doc to leave because he (or she) was playing around with one of the other post-docs.
I know I took a lot of courses at Stanford, but apart from Phys Chemistry where I did horribly, I do not remember all that much. I do remember a course on plant evolution, and the molecular biology courses taught by Yanofsky which I enjoyed, and I fashioned my first course at Indiana University on this.. David Perkins taught a course on Neurospera genetics, and Grobstein on embryology.. I must have learned something since the prelims in part were based on course material. I took a lab course in biochemistry administered by Kornberg, but I do not remember seeing him much in class, but I met the teaching assistant. a few years ago at a meeting at Cornell, where he is now on the faculty. He remembered me, but I did not remember him.
After a year and half in Palo Alto our first child was born (Feb 1963). Mimi decided to stop work just a few days before she gave birth to Yuval. We moved out of Mr. Kwong’s apartment and rented a small house in Menlo Park. This house is still standing, and has not changed much in 40 some years. We drove by a couple of years ago, and nothing had changed on the street. No apartment complexes as we discovered in S. California in the place we used to live. .
The house in Menlo Park was a small “ neat” house owned by a faculty wife (Mrs. Mazur). It has a nice enclosed porch, a living room, dining room and two bedrooms. Although it seemed substantial after a few days, while our baby, Yuval was out in the porch, the ceiling collapsed in part, but luckily not on the baby. Behind the house on the same lot was a duplex apartment. The nicest feature was the garden, a lawn in front and a wonderful apricot tree on the side. This tree was loaded with the most luscious apricots. In fact the yield was such that we took some to a nearby fruit drying plant for processing. Menlo Park was a great place to live. In fact when we visited last year the tree was still standing. We were a few blocks from the center of the town (a real town center), and also close to campus. I could cycle to campus without getting caught in traffic, and there was a park where all the young mothers with their children could meet. Palo Alto was even nicer, with a main street lined with decent stores and restaurants, and a movie house. It gave the impressions of a very proseprous town. However if one went towards the highway it changed radically to an area of shacks, bars and liquors stores. This was the influence of Stanford University, which had a “ dry “ zone around it. The region near the Highway was known as “ whiskey gulch”. A number of our friends lived there because of the low price of housing. This included John Pearse and his wife Cathy with whom, we became very good friends. More about Cathy and John later.
As stated earlier we had a very active social life. Part of this was through the lab. Charlie (as Professor Yanofsky was known) invited the lab after journal club, once a week to his house for coffee and ice cream, and to play croquette, which could be done in the balmy evenings of the bay area. Wives were included and thus everyone got to know each other. It was a very democratic atmosphere, everyone who attended journal club made their way to Charlie’s house in Faculty Housing, a very fancy Eichler home: technicians, graduate students, post-docs and the few undergrads who worked in the lab. Carol Yanofsky was a gracious hostess. Mimi feels that Charlie owes his success to his devoted wife, who took care of everything, leaving him time for science and research. While I was a graduate student Mimi did the same, devoting her time to bringing up the children, first Yuval, born in 1963 and then Jonathan, in 1965.
During this period I taught my first biology course. This was a general biology lab, and I was a teaching assistant. I was one lab ahead of the students. Most of the material was completely new to me, and much of it I did not understand myself. Don Kennedy, later to become head of the FDA was in charge, and being a neurobiologist a lot of the labs were about measuring electric currents, and physiological measurements in twitching frogs. I was quite a novice in this area. Luckily I had a fellowship so I was required to teach only one semester.
I had no difficulty passing my preliminary exams, which were a combination or course work and my specialty. All the students took the same first part, and the student’s major professor wrote the second.
We have lost contact with most of our Stanford friends. An occasional Xmas card from some, others no contact. We did get to know a few of the Israeli students during our time there. One was Alan Rosenthal, whom I had previously met through Habonim in England. He was studying film production. I have not seen him since, but I know he has been quite successful as a documentary film producer, and lives in Jerusalem. Another was Mordecai Kurtz, who was either a post-doc or new assistant professor of economics. He is still at Stanford.
I should mention one with whom we became close friends. This was a young assistant professor from Glasgow. His brother Terry Davidson had been visiting his family in Glasgow from Jerusalem where he was a physician. While in Glasgow, my parents who were friends of his parents, contacted him and asked him to deliver regards. Somehow it was in the local Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Echo that he would be visiting Stanford. Thus through Terry we met his brother Julian, and wife Ann. Julian was an endocrinologist testing various sex hormones in rats. In fact he bored holes into the rat brains , added the hormones and studied their behaviour.. We found we had quite a lot in common, a common kibbutz background and children the same age. We both had spent time in Israel, were from similar Scottish backgrounds and similar youth movements. Julian had been active in Glasgow B’nei Akivah, and had been one of the model characters in Chaim Bermant’s book “Jericho sleep alone”. Ben his son and Yuval our son would soon be playing together. We all got along very well. Julian was a bit “ far out” more than I was. Later on when I visited the family a few years later, I found that Julian had continued searching for the “truth” by spending time in a Buddhist monastery in Nepal. We would meet quite regularly and after we left Stanford, we made attempts to see them when we occasionally visited the Bay-area.
At a very early age of 59 Julian developed Alzheimer’s disease. We did visit him at the early stages of the disease, and he could not remember his way back from the physiology building to his house. It was very sad. Ann his wife has written a book of her experiences of nursing and living with someone at the late stages of Alzheimer’s. Julian died after the long illness in 2001, at the age of 70. We have kept contact with Ann and have visited her a few times.
Among other friends were Marsha and Mathew Allen mentioned above Marsha was a graduate student and we overlapped for a short period of time. Mathew was a physics student, also from Scotland, and it turned out we had once been to the same Habonim camp. Marsha had gone onto MIT and got to know Tommy Berman, my old childhood friend from Glasgow. Thus our friends form a “ circle”.
California in those days was relatively cheap and empty compared with today. Palo Alto had a wonderful climate, sunny and warm, and there was really no need for air conditioning. We saw a lot of the State, going quite often to the National Parks with the children, and camping at the foothills of the Sierras. Our camping was quite primitive, sleeping outside with sleeping bags, rather than having a tent. Other campers thought us very poor. We were no into fancy camping equipment. We even had others give us items thinking we were too poor to afford them. There certainly was a feeling of camaraderie among the campers. We would drive up North to Lassen National Park, which was always empty. Occasionally we would go to the opera in San Francisco. We were always surprised by the difference in climate between San Francisco and Palo Alto. Whereas in Palo Alto it was warm and sunny, we would travel 20 miles into the fog and cold. It was like living in two different worlds.
Towards the end of my Ph.D., I started to think about a post-doc position. We wanted to stay in California, primarily because of Salo and Rutta ( Mimi’ parents), and the relationship they had to the children. I discussed the options with Charlie, and although I thought of Dulbecco’s lab at La Jolla, he suggested I work with John Holland at University of California Irvine, which had just opened up. I wanted to continue working in the field of virology. I think he did not think I was “ high powered enough” for the Dulbecco lab, a very large group. John Holland on the other hand had a very small group and was not as well known as Dulbecco. In retrospect I think it was a mistake, since John and I never really hit it off.