The Recombinant University: Genetic Engineering and the Emergence of Stanford Biotechnology

The Recombinant University: Genetic Engineering and the Emergence of Stanford Biotechnology

by Doogab Yi

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The advent of recombinant DNA technology in the 1970s was a key moment in the history of both biotechnology and the commercialization of academic research. Doogab Yi’s The Recombinant University draws us deeply into the academic community in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the technology was developed and adopted as the first major commercial technology for genetic engineering. In doing so, it reveals how research patronage, market forces, and legal developments from the late 1960s through the early 1980s influenced the evolution of the technology and reshaped the moral and scientific life of biomedical researchers.

Bay Area scientists, university administrators, and government officials were fascinated by and increasingly engaged in the economic and political opportunities associated with the privatization of academic research. Yi uncovers how the attempts made by Stanford scientists and administrators to demonstrate the relevance of academic research were increasingly mediated by capitalistic conceptions of knowledge, medical innovation, and the public interest. Their interventions resulted in legal shifts and moral realignments that encouraged the privatization of academic research for public benefit. The Recombinant University brings to life the hybrid origin story of  biotechnology and the ways the academic culture of science has changed in tandem with the early commercialization of recombinant DNA technology.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226216119
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/23/2015
Series: Synthesis
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Doogab Yi is assistant professor of history and science and technology studies at Seoul National University, where he teaches the history of science as well as science and the law.

Read an Excerpt

The Recombinant University

Genetic Engineering and the Emergence of Stanford Biotechnology

By Doogab Yi

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-21611-9


Communal Form of DNA Research

In the summer of 1959, Arthur Kornberg, along with five of his former colleagues at Washington University, St. Louis, arrived at Stanford University in California. They became faculty members of the newly established Department of Biochemistry at the Stanford Medical School, with Kornberg as its chair. Kornberg had accepted the chairmanship of the new biochemistry department two years earlier; since then, he had the unique opportunity to assemble his faculty members, organize research programs, and help design the department's laboratory space in the new building at the medical school on the Palo Alto campus. Kornberg had complete freedom to choose new faculty members, and in a short letter to Robert Alway, acting dean of the Stanford Medical School, he recommended six—Melvin Cohn at the rank of professor; Paul Berg and Robert L. Baldwin as associate professors; and David Hogness, A. Dale Kaiser, and I. Robert Lehman as assistant professors. There were no other explanations about his recommendations, except his admission that "the [application] forms are rather short on detail, but I think it should be realized that each of these men is being sought after now by excellent universities throughout the country."

The Stanford Biochemistry Department, assembled de novo under the strong leadership of Kornberg, was literally a "Kornberg" department. The entire faculty, except for Baldwin who came from the University of Wisconsin, had previously been recruited to Kornberg's Microbiology Department at Washington University as his postdoctoral fellows or junior faculty. As Kornberg characterized, they were an "extended family." Moreover, they had been, according to Kornberg, "working as a 'team,' in the loosest sense of this term, in trying to understand heredity and differentiation at a chemical and molecular level." Kornberg, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1959 for his research on the synthesis of DNA, was at the forefront of exploring the biochemical basis of heredity as DNA became widely understood as the cell's most important component, its "master plan" that would direct production of its other, various molecular structures. Kornberg had already isolated an enzyme—DNA polymerase—that was believed to direct the chemical synthesis of DNA; this was the work for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize. The group of scientists he had assembled at Washington University in the early 1950s had been examining the chemical and biological properties of DNA. When most of them accompanied Kornberg to Stanford, he formed a "DNA" department as well.

The establishment of the Stanford Biochemistry Department, chaired by the Nobel laureate Kornberg, exemplified the university's commitment to a new vision for biomedicine. The importation of a strong group of scientists in biochemistry and molecular biology to the Stanford Medical School was a key part of its ambitious effort to establish a center for biomedical and clinical research. In July 1953, Stanford president John E. Wallace Sterling, along with members of the board of trustees, had reached a conclusion that the medical school should be an integral part of the university, both geographically and intellectually. The decision to relocate the medical school from San Francisco to the main campus at Palo Alto, in addition to Stanford's vision of a research-oriented medical school, reflected the board's recognition of the significance of biomedical research and its rising cultural, scientific, and financial status in post–World War II research universities. According to Sterling's plan, Stanford's new medical school would establish its basic biomedical departments along with the reorganized clinical departments, and the proximity of both to the main campus would facilitate a new style of biomedicine in which a broad array of conceptual and technical tools in the experimental life sciences could contribute to medical education and research. Sterling noted also that the faculty of the Stanford Medical School underlined the significance of research:

We place great emphasis on the creation within the Medical School of the stimulating and exciting environment which stems from maximum productivity and diversity of research. Although patient care is the backbone of the practice of medicine, the great advances in medicine must necessarily come from experimental and clinical investigation. It is an integral part of the responsibility of the medical school to the Nation to expand the horizons of scientific medicine and to break new ground in the conquest and prevention of disease.

The rise of biomedical research at Stanford was orchestrated by administrators, including the university's first provost, Frederick Terman, and the dean of the medical school, Windsor Cutting; the dean shared the university's strategic pursuit for "steeples of excellence" in a few key areas of research with the highest growth potentials. At a time when the federal government, especially the National Institutes of Health (NIH), drastically expanded its support for biomedical research, Stanford administrators opportunistically took advantage of this post–World War II trend to build up their profile in that area. At one level, Stanford's integration of its medical school with the main university reflected a broader post–World War II realignment in the relationship between medicine and biology, namely the rise of biomedicine as a "hybrid form of research and therapy that combines the normal and pathological." At another level, Stanford's new biochemistry department, with its obstinate focus on basic research as opposed to clinical care, reflected the post–World War II disciplinary consolidation of biochemistry, biophysics, microbiology, genetics, and molecular biology into the broad framework of basic biomedical research. For example, biochemistry, or a minor medical specialty called "medical chemistry," had been a service discipline inside the medical school, providing a basic biological and biochemical training necessary for medical students. However, after World War II, biochemistry emerged as an autonomous and powerful subject area of biomedical research. With the postwar expansion of the biomedical research enterprise, other included disciplines, such as genetics and molecular biology, began to proliferate as autonomous fields in research universities, attracting ample funding to support their laboratory operations.

In this chapter, I examine the development of Stanford biochemists' communal form of laboratory life. I first show how Stanford's strategic appropriation of the expansion of federal patronage for biomedical research led to the establishment of the new biochemistry department, one that strongly focused on DNA as its research subject. Under Kornberg's influence, Stanford biochemists developed their shared research interests in DNA, especially in its biochemical replication and biological activities like genetic expression and regulation—the central problems in molecular biology in the 1960s and 1970s. Stanford biochemists in turn formed a particular style of research community at the local level by cultivating distinctive communal practices among its faculty members. I analyze how Stanford biochemists tried to foster a research community with distinctive moral and political economies of science by sharing laboratory space, research instruments and materials, and even monies. At one level, their sharing practices were embedded in their distinctive moral economy of science—communal views about proper ways of organizing their laboratory life; about social norms and obligations in scientific exchange and knowledge production; and about customs and rules in the distribution of resources in the community life. At another level, their communal mode of the department's financial and managerial operations was reflected in their particular, local political economy of science—a small, tight-knit political economic sphere devised through pooling its resources communally while maintaining its broader, rational economic relationship with federal funding for biomedical research. As I show, the moral and political economies of science embedded in the Biochemistry Department evolved from their efforts to sustain a vibrant flow of ideas, materials, and technologies that could sustain the productivity and independence of their research in the increasingly competitive world of biomedical research in the 1960s.

Toward a Biomedical School

In his presentation to Stanford's Board of Trustees in June 1953, President Sterling argued that the medical school should undertake a bold move that would benefit both itself and the university:

It was argued that the future of medical education is dependent on the course of medical science, and that, in turn, medical science has become increasingly dependent upon the basic physical sciences and upon the social sciences. This key relationship of medical education and science to other scientific fields can best be strengthened and advanced by bringing the Medical School into the closest possible physical and intellectual relationship to the whole University. This is a view to which I subscribe.

The move to the main campus at Palo Alto would be both "physical and spiritual" (figure 1.1). When concluding his study of the Stanford medical school in San Francisco in 1952, Sterling pointed out that the deteriorating educational and clinical facilities were in major need of replacement and refurbishment (figure 1.2). In addition to the "hopeless jumble" of the medical school and Lane Hospital, the former's financial woes were growing worse; it had been losing four hundred thousand dollars annually by 1950.

More problematically, the relative lack of medical research facilities and professors meant that the medical school was in danger of failing to take part in the postwar development of biomedical research and the expansion of its federal support. At Stanford, a memo circulated in the late 1950s stressed the urgent need to emphasize research in the newly relocated medical school. Pointing to the fact that the NIH's grants for training and research had increased by 5 times to 7.5 times in eight years following 1950, it was suggested in the memo that the new medical school should "put an emphasis on education, on attracting more doctors (M.D. + Ph.D.) into academic and investigative training careers" as a way to finance the new medical school (figure 1.3). Sterling, along with the dean of the medical school, Windsor Cutting, emphasized that the intellectual and geographic division between preclinical disciplines of the university, such as biology, biochemistry, chemistry, and genetics, and clinical departments of the medical school, such as anatomy, pathology, and physiology, was no longer tenable. Pointing to the "essential unity of biology and the basic medical sciences," and its implications for both medical practice and medical education, Sterling and Cutting further asserted that the progress of medicine increasingly depended on advances in the basic biochemical and biophysical sciences. The geographic and academic integration of the medical school with the rest of the university, they concluded, could provide an unparalleled opportunity for Stanford to institute biomedical research in a truly academic medical school.

The relocation of the medical school to Stanford's main campus also provided a chance to empower dispersed medicine-related faculty members in the biology and chemistry departments at the university. At Stanford, biochemistry had played a traditional service role to medical education, reflecting the state of the discipline since the early twentieth century. For example, most Stanford biochemists, such as J. Murray Luck and Laurence Pilgeram, resided in the chemistry department and were more oriented toward chemistry rather than biochemistry. Moreover, immediately after World War II, Stanford lost one of the pioneers of biochemical genetics when George Beadle moved to Caltech. He was partly attracted to Caltech on account of the pervasive cooperative research among biologists, chemists, and physicists, who were supported by a flow of grant funds to biochemistry and molecular biology. Beadle was further disappointed by Stanford biochemist Hubert Loring's lack of appreciation for the novel approach based in molecular genetics that Beadle had developed in his Neurospora experimental system. Loring, a student of Wendell M. Stanley, preferred a structural approach to biochemistry based on the crystallization and analytical ultracentrifugation of virus particles. Additionally, Edward Tatum, a biochemist from the Department of Biology at Stanford who collaborated with Beadle on their Nobel prize–winning experiment, had also left to join the Rockefeller Institute in 1956, despite having received Stanford's hasty offer of the chairmanship of a new biochemistry department that was then still a "paper organization."

Frederick Terman, newly appointed in 1955 as academic provost at Stanford, played a key role in establishing two new basic biomedical departments (the Biochemistry and Genetics Departments); he accomplished this, along with Dean Cutting, by coordinating the integration of the medical school with the university. The two men shared Stanford's new vision of a research-oriented medical school, as well as the reform of its medical education curriculum. Terman's administrative experience in rebuilding Stanford's engineering school had provided intellectual and strategic resources for building another "steeple of excellence" in biomedicine. As chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering and later as dean of the School of Engineering at Stanford, Terman had transformed its engineering school into one of the top academic centers of electronics, thus helping lay the foundation for Silicon Valley. Building on the Department of Electrical Engineering's initial strength in radio engineering, Terman had instituted a robust set of electronics-related and microwave research programs in the physics and engineering departments, which in turn attracted government grants and industrial contracts during World War II and the Cold War. Terman's experience in the building of Stanford's School of Engineering, and his contribution to the development of Silicon Valley, convinced him of the centrality of research to a university's intellectual status and financial health. Though already a respectable institution of higher education, Terman claimed that Stanford had become too dependent on political and commercial demands from government and industry. He believed that through its research activities the university could become more independent and gain sufficient intellectual strength to make distinctive contributions to society:

Universities carry on learning and innovation work in the sciences and engineering because it is necessary to do so in order to provide the best possible education at the higher levels. In addition, because of the freedom and low operating costs of universities, they are ideal institutions to carry on research as a service to society.

Terman's emphasis on research was indeed well suited to Stanford's ambition of building a new research-oriented medical school on the main campus (figure 1.4).

At another level, the emphasis on the role of research at both Stanford University as a whole as well as its medical school reflected the post–World War II rise of the "federal research economy" that supported an unprecedented level of government-sponsored academic biomedical research. Above all, the rapid rise of the NIH as a major patron for biological and medical research during the postwar period drew the attention of university administrators. Public enthusiasm for biomedical research not only bolstered federal support but also changed the pattern of private support for medicine after World War II. Lay activists energized voluntary health organizations like the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and the American Cancer Society, enthusiastically promoting the importance of laboratory-based research in fighting diseases. Their activism in turn convinced politicians and government officials that support for biomedical research held broad political appeal. Administrators of medical schools were acutely aware of the implications of the changing patronage system for American medical education and research. In 1950, George B. Darling, director of Medical Affairs at Yale University and former vice-chairman of the medical division of the National Research Council during World War II, called attention to the rising share of government-sponsored research in medical schools. As "medical research became big business," Darling asserted, medical schools deserved to benefit from their share of the available funds. Several universities, including the Johns Hopkins and Stanford medical schools, made serious efforts to accommodate the emerging emphasis on biomedical research by integrating their medical and university education in the early 1950s.


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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Communal Form of DNA Research
Chapter 2. “Mass Migration” and Technologies of Gene Manipulation
Chapter 3. System of Exchange in Recombinant DNA Research  
Chapter 4. Moral and Capitalistic Economies of Gene Cloning
Chapter 5. Who Owns What? Private Ownership and Public Interest in Recombinant DNA Technology in the 1970s
Chapter 6. Reenvisioning the Biomedical Enterprise in the Age of Commercial Biotechnology
List of Abbreviations
Works Cited

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