Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 44.2 (2001) 304-306
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Listen to the Music: The Life of Hilary Koprowski
Listen to the Music: The Life of Hilary Koprowski. By Roger Vaughan. New York: Springer-Verlag, 2000. Pp. 304. $36.
It is a special experience to read a book about a person you know very well. I have known Hilary Koprowski since the early 1960s. My predecessor as professor of virology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sven Gard, spent a sabbatical year at the Wistar Institute in 1959, two years after the institution had been taken over by the dynamic Koprowski. One of my duties as a young student in the laboratory in Stockholm was to dissect human fetuses from legal abortions and send organs to the Wistar Institute. Such material was the source of many important studies of cell lines at the Institute, such as Leonard Hayflick's study of WI-38 cells. In those days we wore wooden clogs in our laboratory: white outside the tissue culture rooms, and red or blue in the clean milieu. My first memory of Koprowski is that he expressed a liking for our red wooden clogs; we sent him a pair. Since then we have had many enriching encounters in many parts of the world, but we have never collaborated scientifically. Thus, my name is not in the index of the book (something checked first by certain readers), but it could have been there. The latest Beauceron dog owned by the Koprowski family is called Norby (double r does not come across well in English).
Roger Vaughan, the author of this book about Koprowski, had no prior personal connection with his subject. He has collected material over many years by personal interviews and by joining the present milieus surrounding Koprowski. It is probably a great advantage for a biographer to approach a person without prior acquaintance: as soon as you know a person well, your description of him will always be a reflection of the contacts you have had, and hence you will unintentionally describe a part of yourself. (In writing this review I have repeatedly had to remind myself that I was writing about Vaughan's book about Koprowski and not about my own encounters with him.)
Yet although Vaughan has the advantage of viewing the central figure of the book without commitment, he also has a disadvantage, in that he has no prior insight into the world of science. It is very difficult for someone from outside to comprehend this remarkable culture. What is it that drives scientists to completely submerge themselves in the arduous tasks they have chosen, and what is their reward? The dominating reward is, of course, to satisfy one's curiosity and to be a part of a unique culture generating new knowledge. While most scientists contribute to a varying degree to the broadening of our base of knowledge, there is a very small group of scientists who make paramount discoveries, discoveries that change the whole direction of a field. One might talk about horizontal and vertical research. It may turn out that a certain finding can be of practical use, and furthermore that it may have a paradigmatic magnitude which [End Page 304] motivates recognition by prizes. But this is not what drives true scientists. It is the urge to understand.
Of course scientists are also human beings. They strive for recognition and appreciation by their peers and colleagues. Not unexpectedly, therefore, the personality of scientists is to a much larger extent dominated by egocentricity than by humbleness.
What then is the picture that Vaughan paints of Koprowski? It is not very appealing. He is described as a slave driver, dictator, paternalistic person, imperious individual, etc. In my view, most important discoveries are made in situations that further dialectic interactions: it is only in such a context that the full potential of individual scientists can evolve and drastically new syntheses can be made. So what about research at the Wistar Institute, dominated by one man? As the book indicates, it...