Sunday, March 29, 2009

Amazing Shortcomings, Amazing Gifts

The Second Edition of In the Mind’s Eye is to come out in July 2009. I began the new Epilogue with the story of the late William J. Dreyer of the California Institute of Technology who, after reading the book, called me one day. I thought you might be interested in his words and part of his story:

“I knew I was different in the way that I thought, but I didn’t realize why I was so dumb at spelling . . . and rote memory and arithmetic. . . . The first time I realized how different . . . brains could be . . . was when I bumped into Jim Olds at a dinner party back in the late sixties. Jim . . . was a professor here [at Caltech] . . . famous for his pleasure center work. . . . A speaker talked about the way we think and compared it to holography. Jim was across the table from me. I said, ‘Oh, yes. When I’m inventing an instrument or whatever, I see it in my head and I rotate it and try it out and move the gears. If it doesn’t work, I rebuild it in my head.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘I don’t see a thing in my head with my eyes closed.’ We spent the rest of the evening . . . trying to figure out how two professors -- both obviously gifted people at Caltech in the Biology Division -- could possibly think at all, because we were so different. So then I took this up with Roger Sperry [Nobel Laureate and near lab neighbor] and I realized that I had some amazing shortcomings as well as some amazing gifts.”

Amazing Shortcomings, Amazing Gifts

This passage is excerpted from the oral history project at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The speaker is the late William J. Dreyer, Ph.D., who is increasingly coming to be recognized as one of the major innovators in the early days of the biotech revolution that is now washing over all of us. In September 2007, one of his inventions was placed in the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. -- the first gas-phase automated protein sequencer, which he patented in 1977. The sign over the machine on exhibit reads: “The Automated Gas-Phase Protein Sequencer: William J. Dreyer and the Creation of a New Technology.”

A strong visual thinker and dyslexic, Dreyer developed new ways of thinking about molecular biology. With his powerful visual imagination, he could somehow see the molecules interacting with each other. Sometimes he was almost entirely alone. He (with his colleague J. Claude Bennett) advanced new ideas based on new data about how genes recombine themselves to create the immune system. These ideas turned out to be 12 years ahead of their time. Most did not like this new theory because it conflicted with the conventional beliefs held by most expects in the field at the time. “It was so counter to the dogma of the time that nobody believed it,” his widow, Janet Dreyer explained to me. Dreyer’s approach also used a form of scientific investigation (peptide mapping) with which most immunologists were unfamiliar. “Knowing what we know now pretty much any biologist would look at Bill’s data and say that is what it has to mean. But few could understand it then,” she noted. However, gradually, they all learned to think the way Dreyer thought. Then, it was obvious that Dreyer (and Bennett) had to be right.

In his earlier school days, Dreyer had the usual difficulties experienced by dyslexics who are also very bright. In college and graduate school he began to find roles that that made use of his strengths while he learned to get help in his areas of weakness. He joined a study group. The others in the group all took careful notes in the lectures. He took no notes. He just sat there while he listened and observed carefully. Then after the lecture, they provided him with the detailed data, and he told them what it all meant. “He was giving the big picture and all the major concepts, . . .” explained Janet Dreyer. Eventually, surviving a major life threatening illness made him realize it was time to refocus his life -- and then his fascination with the laboratory work began to draw him in.

To See What Others Cannot See

Soon, the young Bill Dreyer became a star in the laboratory. While in graduate school in Seattle, and while working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, he could tell his professors and colleagues which were the best experiments to do. Somehow he knew how to proceed and where to go in this brand new field of study that came to be known as protein chemistry. His professors and section heads would write the grants, get the funding and write the papers for him based on his ideas and observations. “The money just came. Because he was doing good work, grants would just be there for him,” observed Janet Dreyer. He was happy at NIH but eventually (after a previous offer had been refused) in 1963 Caltech persuaded Dreyer to come to Pasadena as a full professor at the age of 33. Clearly, the value of his pioneering work had been recognized.

However, later, because of the further development of his heretical ideas, William Dreyer could not get funding from academic or foundation sources for inventing his new instruments. His department head would get irate phone calls from professors from other institutions complaining about Dreyer’s publications and talks. He gave many talks at the time, making some attendees angry, although some could see the importance of his innovative perceptions. “He was on the lecture circuit then and he [gave these talks] a lot.” Of course, these were not really unproven theories, explained his widow Janet. She pointed out that Dreyer was sure of his ground because he had the data to prove the veracity of his ideas. “It was not merely a hypothesis in that paper, it was real data.” However, it was data in a form so new and so alien that almost everyone in the field could not understand what he was talking about. In time, these professors, and all their students, came to see, much later, that William Dreyer had been right all along.

Because he could not get funding from the usual sources, Dreyer went to private companies to manufacture his instruments -- something quite unusual and discouraged at the time but now wildly popular among universities hoping for a share of large royalty payments. Seeing the potential for his inventions (and their scientific impact) but having a hatred of administration and corporate politics, Dreyer came to be, as he told me, the “idea man” for seven new biotech companies (including Applied Biosystems). . . . . Years later, when Susumu Tonegawa was awarded a Nobel Prize (Physiology or Medicine, 1987) for work he had done in Switzerland, his innovative sequencing work proved (through experiments that were illegal in the US at the time) that Dreyer and his colleague had been correct in their predictions many years earlier.

From the Epilogue to In the Mind’s Eye, Second Edition, 2009.

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