This series, Faculty Remembered, features profiles of former faculty members at P&S. The author of the series is a 1951 P&S graduate and former professor of medicine. He is now special lecturer in medicine and writer-in-residence at P&S.
ON JUNE 20, 2002, ONE OF THE MOST EMINENT MEMBERS OF THE P&S faculty died at age 96 after working at Columbia since 1935. Professor Erwin Chargaff possessed astonishing powers of intellect. In his student years he had difficulty choosing whether to pursue science or philology: He learned early that he had unusual affinity for language, excelling in the standard classics. For a year he pursued both lines of study, only abandoning languages over the years he learned 15 for logistical reasons. His mastery of English exceeded that of all his American colleagues; his writing, like his speech, had idiomatic rhythm, and he could be very, very funny. As a non-biochemist, I plan to sketch briefly his scientific career one should say quickly that his main field was nucleic acids then describe his real life biography and discuss how those two sets of information coalesced to make him the controversial figure he became.
Erwin Chargaff was born in Czernowitz, a provincial capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now Czernovsky, Ukraine. The family was upper middle class; his father had inherited a bank. Young Erwin was a good student from the start. Educated in the gymnasiums (college-prep secondary schools) of Vienna he received good marks in everything and entered the University of Vienna (not a great institution by Chargaffs account) and, without much precise planning, traveled obliquely into chemistry, receiving his doctorate, summa cum laude, in 1928. His dissertation was on organic silver complexes.
He says he simply drifted into the next several jobs, not easy to find in Europe in the crushing post-World War I depression. He describes his job hunting as aleatory (by chance). His positions from 1928 to 1935 were low level and poorly paid: research associate at Yale University (he found New Haven provincial, the students rich boys); Department of Bacteriology at the University of Berlin, where he met several famous scientists; and the Institute Pasteur in Paris. Each sojourn lasted two to three years. In 1935 he learned that Hans Clarke had a little job for me (for more about Clarke, chairman of biochemistry at P&S, 1928-56, see P&S Journal, Spring 2001, Vol. 21, No. 2, p. 2). Since Chargaff had by then published 30 papers at age 30 he assumed his rank would be as assistant professor, but it turned out to be only research associate. As he so often reacted, EC complained loud and long, feeling also that his academic progress was uniquely slow (17 years to reach full professor but actually about normal speed for that time). We will discuss complaining below.
The Columbia years in what became the cell chemistry lab fostered dozens of graduate students (postdocs). Early, they worked on many topics, later on blood clotting. After Averys seminal paper (1944) on deoxyribonucleic acids as the genetic material, Chargaffs labs rapidly embarked on a voluminous series of papers about DNA, reporting much news: overturning the tetrahydronucleotide theory of DNA structure and the famous discovery of Chargaffs Rules (see P&S Journal, Fall 2003, Vol. 23, No. 3, p. 32), reported from 1948 to 1950. In the years after 1950, most of his laboratorys output concerned DNA; after 1962, the professor seemed to withdraw from the lab and from the young trainees (1962 being the year Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize for finding the double helix).
Chargaff was chairman of biochemistry from 1970 to 1974 (a moderate, not extraordinary success) and spent his retirement years (1974 to the 1990s) compulsively writing; his total output is estimated at 450 papers and 15 books on diverse topics. It seems that upon retirement, he was rather unceremoniously ousted from locked out of his laboratory. The dean suggested that Roosevelt Hospital give him a lab, an office, and a modest salary to supplement his retirement pay (he thought his TIAA meager). And so he could go on traveling in Europe and writing.
On the surface, Chargaffs career appears to be a rather standard upward curve, ending in a secure position, not so badly paid at its upper end, in a university with a good reputation perhaps not given to coddling its employees but about standard for the Ivy League. Reference was made above to Chargaff as controversial, even difficult. But when you study his extrascientific life, you find an extraordinary number of takings-away. He was born in the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, decaying but superficially stable. The Chargaffs had enough money. The family life was cultivated, even idyllic. The professors mother radiated misericordia (compassion). Suddenly, in 1914 (Erwin was 9), at a watering spot on the Baltic, the family witnessed Kaiser Wilhelm IIs sons receiving the news of the Archduke Franz Ferdinands assassination, i.e., the trigger of World War I. The Chargaffs, homeless, moved abruptly to Vienna. The father lost his money. Economic depression squeezed everyone. In 1934, despite his efforts to rescue her, his idolized mother was snuffed out in a concentration camp. Much later, an established figure in the chemistry of DNA, he sees all the prizes going to amateurs who knew no chemistry. It seems reasonable to expect some resentment in a sensitive person he said himself that he was born with a stone in my shoe. Early on, his young friends dubbed him a misfit. Every personality has limits. The writer proposes that we observers should make some allowances.
As for his exclusion from the Nobel Prize, Chargaff was among 24 scientists who contributed in essential ways. It would be pleasant if they all could be recognized. As for Chargaff, his regularities, what became known as Chargaffs rules, should be memorial enough (New York Times obituary, June 30, 2002).
The author wishes to thank those who provided facts and opinions: Professors Isidore Edelman, Seymour Lieberman, Alexander G. Bearn, Gerald B. Phillips, Alvin I. Krasna, and Edwin D. Bransome Jr.58. Robert S. Cox, keeper of manuscripts of the American Philosophical Society, kindly provided materials from Dr. Chargaffs papers. Much was learned from Professor Chargaffs memoir, Heraclitean Fire, Rockefeller University Press, NY, 1978.