- Jake, Leon Jacobson, M.D.: The Life and Work of a Distinguished Medical Scientist
Leon Jacobson—"Jake"—was a special person whose origins in rural North Dakota had a critical influence on how he later behaved in the world of high-powered science. This biography, by Jake's long-time associate and colleague Eugene Goldwasser, traces Jake's evolution from a farm boy to a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a founding member of the Institute of Medicine.
Jake was born in 1911 in Sims, North Dakota, a largely agricultural region, with small farms as well as cattle and sheep ranches. His parents were Norwegian, and despite their need for help on the farm from their seven children, the four youngest, including Jake, graduated from high school. Jake was fortunate to have had teachers in grammar school and high school who recognized his special qualities. They tutored and encouraged him to take the next step, and he entered North Dakota Agriculture College in Fargo in 1928. Despite the Depression, failed banks, and the loss of his savings, Jake graduated from college and entered medical school at the University of Chicago in 1935. There was one transforming event during this period: Jake taught eight grades of elementary school in a two-room school near Sims. He described it as, in many ways, the most rewarding three years of his life. [End Page 629]
Jake's career after medical school was changed by a series of improbable events. As a second-year resident at the University of Chicago, he became responsible for monitoring the blood counts of physicists working on the Manhattan Project at the university. He was then given responsibility as a physician for all of the staff in the Metallurgical Laboratory, which was the code name given to that part of the Manhattan Project at the university. He did not know exactly what they were doing and thus could not assess their potential risk of any illness. In response to his persistent questions about the activities of the staff, he was finally informed that they were working on the atomic bomb. He was stunned by this revelation but realized that he could not withdraw. As the number of staff increased so did his responsibilities. His own staff also increased, and as a result Jake became more removed from the daily clinical responsibilities and could begin research on the effect of radiation on blood cell formation.
Through his contacts with the Manhattan Project and subsequently with friends in various government-sponsored labs around the country, Jake and the then Dean, Lowell T. Coggeshall, proposed to build a cancer research hospital for treating patients with radioisotopes produced by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). After some very negative reactions from the AEC, the proposal was approved by Congress. The Argonne National Laboratories, operated by the University of Chicago about 30 miles from the campus, did not want a hospital within its confines, so the Argonne Cancer Research Hospital (ACRH) was incorporated into the university hospital systems. ACRH had an unusual structure for American biomedical operations. It was funded by money from the AEC; as Director, Jake had relative freedom to manage it and to allocate money as he saw fit. ACRH was a paradise because grant applications were simple. There were annual reports and regular program reviews, so Jake could not get too far offbase, but at the same time, he had a remarkable degree of freedom about who to hire and the direction of the research.
I consider myself an extreme example. I knew Jake when I was a medical student. After graduating from medical school in 1948, I interned and then worked in well baby clinics and a clinic for retarded children. This latter involvement with retarded children, especially those with Down's syndrome, led me to study chromosomes during my husband's sabbatical, spent in Oxford, 1961–62. On returning to Chicago with my Oxford research project on the pattern of human chromosome replication less...