Matthew Meselson

Matthew S. Meselson waited quietly in the car while female associates handled the delicate work of questioning families of people who had died of anthrax. The scientist had charmed, wrangled, and nagged politicians on two continents from 1979 to 1992 for permission to probe a strange outbreak of the disease in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk 1979. But just days before Meselson boarded a plane for Moscow to conduct the interviews, former President Boris Yeltsin, a Sverdlovsk official during the out

Mar 18, 2002
Peg Brickley
Matthew S. Meselson waited quietly in the car while female associates handled the delicate work of questioning families of people who had died of anthrax. The scientist had charmed, wrangled, and nagged politicians on two continents from 1979 to 1992 for permission to probe a strange outbreak of the disease in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk 1979. But just days before Meselson boarded a plane for Moscow to conduct the interviews, former President Boris Yeltsin, a Sverdlovsk official during the outbreak, admitted that "military developments" had played a role.

Meselson, now Thomas Dudley Cabot professor of the natural sciences at Harvard University, persisted in investigating the largest-known epidemic of deadly human inhalational anthrax. "We had no idea what would happen when we knocked on the door and said we want to talk about anthrax," he says. "Would [the female investigators] be kicked out? Nobody kicked them out. Everybody gave them tea and cake." The Meselson team members published their findings in 1994: The Soviet government had accidentally triggered the outbreak while developing biological weapons at a military microbiology facility in violation of an international agreement.

Now a trim, energetic man of 71, Meselson recounts the Sverdlovsk history as he fields phone calls from U.S. News and World Report, The New York Times, and from television news reporters from Germany and Switzerland. All seek scientific explanations of Bacillus anthracis. With British chemist and activist Julian Perry Robinson, Meselson cochairs the Harvard Sussex Program on Chemical and Biological Warfare Armament and Arms Limitation, and the international war on terrorism has brought their work into the public eye once again. Nevertheless, Meselson continues his lab work.

In 1958, Meselson was still a graduate student under Linus Pauling at the California Institute of Technology when he and Frank Stahl performed the experiment that proved James Watson's theory of semi-conservative DNA replication.1 That work tops the list of scientific achievements that Mark Ptashne has compiled to back his nomination of Meselson for an award. An accomplished molecular biologist and gene researcher at Sloan Kettering Institute, Ptashne as a student followed Meselson from CalTech to Harvard.

"What I found interesting about writing this nomination is that every major scientist that I know, I mean every single one, wrote in support of it," Ptashne comments. Today, Meselson's lab focuses on sexual reproduction, and why the loss of it in a species usually leads to early extinction.

Yet, the scientist's phone rings and rings and rings with calls from the press. After four decades of working behind the scenes, Meselson reluctantly steps before the cameras to talk about chemical and biological warfare, its pathology and its politics. Mike Wallace interviewed him on 60 Minutes; Charlie Rose quizzed him on public television. This media darling role can irritate Meselson, though he can still pull it off. He can also come through as an adviser to government, although he warns against the seductions of power. "Often under pressure, it's political people who cause the scientists to rush to judgment," Meselson says.

Meselson wandered into bioterrorism research during a part-time summer job in Washington, DC in 1963. A government official who conducted the young Meselson on his first tour of America's biological and chemical arsenal thrilled to the idea of cut-rate killing that would eradicate human life but leave buildings and equipment intact. "It seemed at first odd to me that anyone would think it was a good idea to be able to kill people cheaply," the scientist says. "It dawned on me that it would be in the interest of the United States to keep war so expensive that only we could afford it."

His mentor, Pauling, had warned Meselson to avoid activism. Pauling himself publicly protested US nuclear testing programs—even stepping from a picket line in front of the White House to go inside the building for a dinner honoring Nobel laureates. But the mentor informed the protégé that the young should develop their profession rather than their politics. Meselson recounts the tale with much choreography of eyebrows and spectacles in imitation of Pauling.

Nevertheless, like Pauling, Meselson has used his scientific prestige to campaign on an international stage. He challenged Wall Street Journal editorial writers in the 1980s when they accused the Vietnamese government of unleashing a chemical weapon resulting in deadly "Yellow Rain." Meselson concluded the rain's color came from bee excrement. He was right.2

Despite his commitment against bioterrorism, Meselson will not feed the scare about anthrax to boost his cause. Anthrax is easier to mishandle in the lab than it is to make weapons from, he tells reporters. "Anyone who really works in a lab knows that this kind of work is not like putting a piece of litmus paper in vinegar to see if it turns pink," he adds. "The political people don't understand that. They say, 'Oh boy, it's science.'"

Unlike the Sverdlovsk anthrax survivors—hushed for 13 years—Americans share their grief with the global public. Such publicity makes it all the more important, Meselson says, for scientists to be rigorous. "This research has to be done right. If it's not, the question will be asked, Why wasn't it done right?' What happened to the scientists? And it should be asked."

Peg Brickley (dbizpeg@bellatlantic.net) is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.

References

1. F.L. Holmes, Meselson, Stahl, and the Replication of DNA: A History of "The Most Beautiful Experiment in Biology," New Haven, Ct..: Yale University Press, 2001.

2. K. Klinger, "Chemist with a Conscience," The Scientist, 2[10]:1 May 30, 1988.