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Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech by Sally Smith Hughes (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 55, Number 2, April 2014
pp. 511-512 | 10.1353/tech.2014.0046

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

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Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech. By Sally Smith Hughes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. Pp. xii+ 213. $25.

The story line of Genentech’s founding in 1976 and the early days of biotechnology have been rehearsed by numerous individuals, from journalists to scientists to venture capitalists. Like DNA, these stories are also prone to replication and subject to change when retold, with small pieces missing or slightly changed. Like myths, these stories are susceptible to oversimplification. One counter to such challenges to the historical record has been the practice of collecting oral histories and building archives of recent science. Historians have long been indebted to Sally Smith Hughes for her oral history interviews with key people in the biotechnology field, and many of these, archived at the Regional Oral History Office of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, reflect her unprecedented access to key scientists and individuals involved with the Genentech Corporation. Along with the private papers of Bob Swanson and the Genentech corporate archives, Hughes notably draws on these interviews to craft this long-awaited monograph, Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech.

Multiple approaches could have been taken to describe the emergence of biotechnology, but from the start, Hughes focuses her lens quite tightly on the careers and activities of the Genentech cofounders, Herbert Boyer and Bob Swanson. The temporal scope of analysis ends with Genentech’s initial public offering in 1980, offering a clue as to how the author makes sense of the gradual formation of a biotechnology “milieu” (pp. 16, 31, 165). The central issue that motivates this book is a question about the nature of biotechnology itself. To answer this, Hughes invites readers to a behind-the-scenes view of how Boyer, Swanson, and others came to work together and navigate the terrain of venture capital, recombinant DNA politics, risk-taking, and naïve missteps that were integral to the formation of Genentech. According to Hughes, the eventual new normal, in which bioscientists overcame hesitancy to conduct research in biotech start-up firms that could be done otherwise in academia, was made possible by the trials, errors, and successes of Genentech that in turn emboldened a generation of bio-entrepreneurs.

Hughes’s observations about the biotech venture help disturb any assumptions that the Cohen-Boyer recombinant DNA experiments paved a self-fulfilling path to incorporation. By giving readers access to some of the timely decision-making processes that took place in a period of declining federal funding for basic scientific research, she makes clear why joining Genentech was appealing for some. The book impresses upon readers that the social environment of biotech forged at the time appeared as a virgin [End Page 511] territory of science, technology, and industry that Genentech needed to chart in order to stay intact.

The three central chapters describe key research developments that constitute Genentech’s synthesis story: the proof-of-concept research on the unmarketable growth-inhibiting hormone somatostatin, human insulin, and human growth hormone. To demonstrate the emergent culture of biotech, Hughes highlights important material that makes this account of Genentech ultimately a human story about the different personalities, male culture, and risk-taking behaviors that counterweighted the many anxieties of the start-up company, from finding talent, lab space, and funding to dealing with research moratoria, managing public images, staying within the good graces of universities and the NIH, and handling legal negotiations. It is in these discussions, particularly at the end of the fifth chapter when the women biotechnology researchers are given some attention, that the broader implications of Genentech for understanding the dynamics of labor and work in biotech firms stand out. The involvement of Keiichi Itakura, a scientist of Japanese heritage, in the early Genentech experiments at City of Hope National Medical Center, and later international legal disputes hint at further opportunities for understanding the depth of the firm’s international significance. (A Japanese translation of Genentech by Hiroe Chiba was published by Ittosha in 2013.)

The “recombinant culture” (p. 132) that Hughes refers to was characterized by academic values interbred with corporate form, as at Genentech, a pattern that defined the biotech era. However, the corporate...