III. Strange bedfellows: a Czech chemist and a Flemish virologist
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a Czech chemist and a Flemish virologist 39  Chapter III Strange bedfellows: a Czech chemist and a Flemish virologist Poets and prose writers are like amphoras waiting to be filled with wine or water. Scientists do not wait for their amphoras to be filled; they search for faucets producing spurts of liquid. Only the passage of time tells whether ambrosia or vinegar has issued. The search for the faucet is what counts. — Carl Djerassi Auspicious omens Antonín Holý felt lucky. After his graduation from Charles University and military service, he was able to pursue his passion for chemistry, which he had nurtured since his youth. A book on chemistry for children, which he stumbled upon in his parents’ attic, had ignited his fascination. His mother, who possessed a phenomenal memory for numbers, and his father , an artisan who made beautiful locks and other tools, stimulated his calling. They built a miniature laboratory for him in a corner of the garden shed. With a burning interest in his father’s instruments and machinery, he developed uncanny skills during the 1940s. Since his father was a craftsman and not associated with capitalist intellectuals , Antonín Holý was never branded as a bourgeois element. In high school he often substituted for his chemistry teacher who regularly abandoned the classroom. The teacher, as a fervent music lover, preferred to attend choir rehearsals instead. Life in the family village near Prague was simple. His childhood friend, Ludmila, became the love of his life. She would have liked to become a biologist but the communists considered it unproductive and allowed only very few students into this field. She had no choice but to reorient her 40 Cold War Triangle studies and focus on chemistry for the food industry instead. Antonín and Ludmila married, had two little daughters and formed a close-knit family . They shuttled between their modest home in the village near Prague and a chalupa, a country house where they grew vegetables to feed the household when shelves in the shops were depleted and distribution of goods in the communist economy was lacking. His brilliant studies in organic chemistry at Charles University brought him to the attention of František Šorm, who snapped him up to work on a doctorate in the IOCB.1 Chemistry was considered apolitical and its students were not as closely supervised as in other faculties. Organic chemistry , the chemistry of substances found in living matter, was so dear to his heart that it was quite a shock and disappointment to be assigned to an oligonucleotide chemistry group. Holý described his feelings in one of his essays, “My life with nucleic acids”: When I joined the oligonucleotide chemistry group in IOCB I knew nothing about nucleic acids at all. I was not particularly fond of biochemistry lessons during the happy days at the faculty and there was nothing to improve this affinity during the days of my PhD study in synthetic organic chemistry.2 Things changed once he was hired as a full time employee and paired with an ingenious laboratory assistant. A statuesque woman, authoritative and gentle at the same time, taught him everything in biochemistry as well as the synthesis of the building blocks of heredity.3 His supervisor, Jiri Smrt, had a name with only consonants  — Smrt literally meaning “death” in Czech. A pun was never far behind especially when he made one of his frequent visits to the lab of Sir Alexander Todd in Cambridge. Jiri’s co-workers pronounced it Tod, also meaning “death” in German.4 Holý absorbed every new technique or procedure his supervisor had picked up in Cambridge as if by osmosis. The IOCB in Prague became in the early sixties one of the three or four renowned places in the world where nucleotide synthesis was cultivated.5 This attracted many researchers at the Institute. Among them was Marc Van Montagu, a doctoral fellow from the Ghent University in Belgium. He was encouraged to go to Prague by his university’s president, who did a Czech chemist and a Flemish virologist 41  not hide his communist sympathies and had befriended many intellectuals and institutions behind the Iron Curtain. Van Montagu would later become one of the first plant geneticists, a pioneer in engineering transgenic plants resistant to insects. He also happened to be the first foreign scientist Holý had ever met. They quickly became friends. During the three months spent in the IOCB in 1963, Van Montagu regaled him with...


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