How to Ban Biological Weapons

How to Ban Biological Weapons

"I purified rare earths in the garage"

In 1969, President Nixon announced the end of all American offensive biological weapons programs, and renounced the first use of chemical weapons. But it wasn’t until several months later that Nixon confirmed that the U.S. would end all military research into toxins, which can be created either in nature or in the lab.

Nixon chose to end that toxin research because of one man, our interviewee today. Matthew Meselson is well-known in biology for his Meselson-Stahl experiment, which demonstrated that DNA replicates semiconservatively, and has won myriad awards for his academic work. But his consulting work for federal agencies at several crucial moments in Cold War history may be Meselson’s greatest professional contribution.

Meselson is 94 years old. He graciously agreed to a conversation with Statecraft about one of those moments. The first part of our conversation is published below.

What You’ll Learn

  • How do you convince a president in one memo?

  • How did Hungarian lunch ladies help lead to Nixon banning toxins for military use?

  • Why did the Joint Chiefs of Staff want to develop anthrax?

  • Why was Nixon reading Michael Crichton?

The interviewee as a young man.

Print version

I got into this whole subject purely by accident. My friend Paul Doty, a Harvard chemist, was on the General Advisory Committee of the newly created United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. John F. Kennedy had created it. It's something that Hubert Humphrey had wanted. 

It was the summer of 1963, and I had nothing to do — my lab was working well, it didn't need me. I wasn't married. I have a friend who had a beautiful house in Georgetown, walking distance from the State Department. With this lovely house, the idea of summer, maybe I'd meet a nice lady. 

So Doty nominates me, and they pay a nice salary and travel expenses so you could go back and forth on weekends. And they hired six of us academics. I got down there and they're all very friendly. It was a bit like a college rather than a government agency because they were looking for ideas: they were newly created and they didn't know exactly what they should do. They had money from the Bureau of the Budget [now OMB]. 

I was told I should work on “arms control of theater nuclear weapons in Europe.” I knew absolutely nothing about this subject. 

So why had they brought you in?

Because Doty nominated me and was on the general advisory board. I suppose that's why. Maybe they did a little bit of a background check and discovered I'd never done anything too terrible. Who knows?

So they said I should work on arms control of nuclear weapons, about which I knew zero. I went to my boss, Franklin Long, a very fine chemist from Cornell, and said, “I don't know anything about this. I'm a chemist and a biologist. Why don't you have me look at that?” He said, “You can do whatever you want. We're all going off to Moscow to negotiate the atmospheric test ban, and we had a guy, just like you, he had got a degree from Caltech, but he got depressed and he killed himself. You can have all of the documents that he collected, you can have his safe.” 

So I looked in his safe, I read all his documents, and I went to the CIA to see what we knew about what other countries were doing. At that time the answer was, we have suspicions, but very little hard knowledge. And then I went to Fort Detrick to see what we were doing. 

What was your clearance situation at that time?

Top Secret and Q for nuclear weapons. They gave me Q because they thought maybe I would work on European theater nuclear weapons There are all kinds of security clearances beyond top secret.

Anyway, I went to Fort Detrick, and a colonel who had been an assistant professor at the Harvard Medical School gave me a nice tour. He took me all around, and we came to a building about seven stories high. When we got up close, I could see what looked like windows were just fake windows.

I asked him, “What do we do in there?” He said, “We make anthrax spores. We have a 10,000-gallon reactor. I said, “Why do we do that?” He said they'd be cheaper than nuclear weapons as a strategic weapon. 

It didn't take me very long to realize that one thing the United States definitely did not want is the introduction into the world of a super cheap strategic weapon. It's our interest to keep strategic weapons so expensive that nobody could afford them but us. That would be the best. The next best would be only our pals. But the idea that you could introduce a strategic weapon that anybody could have? What if you could make hydrogen bombs for a dollar a piece? Oh my God! 

So I realized that I had a perfect, irrefutable argument to get rid of this crap. All that I'd have to do is get to the person who could stop it. Who's that? It was only one person, that's President Johnson. This is still 1963. Kennedy had been assassinated in November.

I wrote some papers inside the arms control agency, suggesting that the agency become interested in this. And William Foster, who was the director of the agency, a very fine Republican, thought that it should be done by the President's national security team, which was then under the direction of McGeorge Bundy, who was the dean who’d hired me at Harvard and by then already a pal.

So Mr. Foster wrote to Bundy and said, “Why don't you look into this?” And Bundy wrote back and said, “We're awfully busy right now. No, you do it.” That meant that I had the blessing of Foster. So I wrote a paper. What else did I do? I went around and talked to a lot of people. And nothing much happened until a little bit later. 

Who were you talking to? 

No interagency group was tasked with thinking about the problem. All you had was Meselson and a few pals here and there who thought it was interesting. This was a slumbering topic. The big topic at that time was a plan that came out of the State Department. to put nuclear weapons on ships. There was great fear that Germany might want to make their own nuclear weapons. And if that was true, we'd have a lot of problems, so we wanted to keep nuclear weapons under our unified control. 

The idea was called a multilateral force: you put nuclear weapons on ships and you'd have representatives of Germany and France, at least. With the agreement of them and the United States, they could fire the nuclear weapons, but it would give them a kind of finger on the trigger, a terrible idea. And my friend Henry Kissinger thought it was an absolutely terrible idea.

Why was that? 

He thought anything that spread the capability of firing nuclear weapons beyond the United States — and we can't help about the Soviet Union — was a dumb idea. We don't want to make it multilateral.

But then the German minister of defense asked for release authority on the chemical weapons that we had stored in Germany. Those weapons had originally been placed in France, but General de Gaulle did not want them in France, and he ordered them out. They belonged to us, so we moved them out of France into Germany. 

What was de Gaulle's opposition to hosting them? 

He didn't want any American weapons that he couldn't control. De Gaulle was not very hot on anything that wasn't under French control. So they get moved to Germany, and they're still under our complete control. The Germans provided real estate where we could keep them, but they didn’t have release authority.

So the Germans say they would like to be able to use those weapons. That gets a lot of interest in Washington. First of all, it's a very important question. Do we want them, in the middle of a war with Russia, unilaterally, to start using chemical weapons? Hell no! 

Second, chemical weapons in German hands? There are still a lot of memories of Auschwitz and things like that. It would not send a very good message. 

Remind me which chemical weapons? 

There were mainly artillery shells with nerve gas, and there may have been some mustard gas, I’m not sure. Now that's a big deal that requires consideration at the highest level of the United States government, which is called the Committee of Principals, which means the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and so on. 

Did this happen in the public eye at all? Or was this a request between governments? 

I don't know if the newspapers knew about it. But the point I want to make most strongly is that this topic of chemical weapons went from a question at the lowest possible level, a nobody summer consultant named Meselson and a few of his pals, right up to the Committee of Principals in one big jump. So that's really what got a lot of interest going, and why a lot of people read the papers I was writing.

But more important than any of this — you can't really be sure why things happen in the world — but it was because Henry [Kissinger] and I were already good friends.

 And that was for a silly reason. His building, which was called the Semitic Museum there [now the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East], is full of things from the Middle East, from ancient Mesopotamia, Sumer, and Babylonia. During the war, the Air Force took it over for offices. Henry still had an office there, and it was right next to the biological laboratory, which is me. 

On the third floor, there was a kitchen where two Hungarian ladies made the most magnificent lunches: goulash and all kinds of stuff. I would have lunch there, and so would Henry, and I got to meet him that way. 

Also beginning in 1966, Henry created a Harvard/MIT arms control seminar, which met in the evenings once a month, and I was a member of that, and then I got to know him really well. I was going through a divorce from my first wife, as was Henry, and we used to sit together in his office and complain about how cold Harvard was. And then also, we were in Europe at a so-called Pugwash meeting, and I had a car, and he had no car, so I drove him around.

Then Nixon gets elected to the presidency. And before Nixon takes office, he already named his cabinet and Henry as his national security advisor. I'm going to Washington back and forth quite often in those days. See, I was from Harvard, Jack Kennedy was from Harvard, Washington was full of people who'd been appointed by Kennedy. I could knock on doors. “Okay, you're a professor from Harvard, come on in.” I got to see Elliot Richardson and all kinds of people.

So I'm doing all that stuff when Henry is named National Security Advisor. And the airport in Boston at American Airlines, there's a ramp. I'm walking up the ramp and Henry's walking down, and we collide. Bingo. Like that. He knows I'm interested in chemical and biological weapons, and he says, “What should I do about your thing?” I said, “I'll write you some papers.”

So that was pure serendipity?

Yes. So the first thing I did, I gave him a copy of Michael Crichton. Do you know who Michael Crichton was?

Jurassic Park? 

Yeah. Lots of books. He was a Harvard medical student, but he didn't practice medicine. He had written a book called The Andromeda Strain, about this horrible organism that comes back from some planet and so on, and Henry gave it to the president. I never met the president, but Henry told me it made a big impression on the president, got him interested in biological weapons. 

This was while Nixon was in office? 


He was reading Crighton in the evening, after work?

When he read it, I don't know. Maybe he read it in the bathroom. But anyway, I wrote a paper for Henry, and I had a winning argument. There's no way you could argue against it. The question was, how do you get the president to pay attention to it? 

In biology, before you do an experiment, usually you write what's called a protocol. You list what reagents you need, what equipment you need, and then one, two, three, the steps. Since that was my habit, I got a yellow pad of paper and I wrote a protocol. What do you do to get the president? Go see him: but I had no way to do that. I wrote down: maintain close contact with Henry. 

Then there's the Congress. How do you affect the Congress? My first approach was thinking not many Congressmen were going to want to talk to me. Senator Ed Brook was from Massachusetts, okay, I could talk to him. But the easy thing to do would be to talk to the young people in their offices. 

Senators and congressmen usually have two kinds of assistants, an administrative assistant who keeps the wheels turning, and a legislative assistant who helps write legislation and speeches. [These days, congressmen generally have 8-9 office team members. Senators have more.] Generally, these are young people, and they were easy to see, because they're always looking for something for their boss.

And I got to know several of them, and then I got to know Senator Fulbright: that was really important. William Fulbright was the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, a rural scholar, a professor of history. I got to know him for a funny reason. Reagan had just proposed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM). And Fulbright thought it was a lousy idea. But he had the crazy idea that, even if ABM would prevent nuclear weapons from reaching the United States, the Russians could still attack us somehow with biological weapons, and therefore it's not very important to have ABM, because we’d still be vulnerable. 

He said, “I want you to give a talk to the entire committee on a classified basis.” So I come down to Washington and they clear a room for top secret discussion. I gave this long thing, and it was published, but I had to sanitize it, because I had a lot of classified stuff in there. 

[Here Meselson tells a story that cannot be repeated.]

So I went to Washington again and again. I wrote papers for Henry. The argument was unbeatable, and now comes a time for treaties. The British already had a draft biological weapons treaty that had been sitting in a file. So the British proposed it, and that meant that we had to think about it, too, and it meant that the Soviets would be talking about it: we’d have to answer. By this time, we had a marvelous guy at the arms control agency, an artillery captain named Don Manley.

He and others at the agency began to work out U.S. policy. We agreed with the British. At the same time, there was work going on the Chemical Weapons Convention, which had a verification annex, with real inspection. Russian guys could come and watch us destroy our chemical weapons. 

The chemical industry was very supportive of the Chemical Weapons Convention, quite different from their point of view back in the 1920s. After Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, chemistry had become a bad word. The chemical industry thought it would be very nice if they could be portrayed as against chemical weapons, and both Monsanto and DuPont let two of our guys leave their regular duties just to help the negotiation. Of course, they were also interested in making sure that the eventual treaty had nothing that would really harm the industry. But these guys were very helpful in designing verification procedures. 

Tell me more about that. What did they propose? 

What do you do when you come to a chemical manufacturer's facility to show that it's not making chemical weapons? Do you allow them to take samples? What kind of samples? Do you allow them to look at everything? What kind of information do you give them? These details are all in the treaty, but those details were partly worked out with help, because what do the diplomats know about chemistry? 

Now, what about the Biological Weapons Convention? There were a lot of ideas about it, and many meetings at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva on a verification protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention. I was part of the U.S. delegation at one of those meetings to try to negotiate verification protocol. It never happened. 

The reason was that the manufacturers’ association for pharmaceuticals, PhRMA, is now a mature organization, but at that time, they were not close to the industry. They were a brand new outfit, and they simply assumed that it would be bad for the pharmaceutical industry to have any kind of visit at the factories where they make drugs. They never visited a single CEO, as far as I know. 

How do I know that? I was on a very secret committee in the State Department some years later, and I wanted to tell this committee what the pharmaceutical industry thought about verification. Merck’s CEO was a biochemist named Roy Vagelos, and I knew him.

He's at Martha's Vineyard for the summer, and I go out there and we have lunch at the Black Dog Cafe, and he says, “We would welcome verification!”

I asked him, “Did PhRMA ever contact you? “No, I’d never heard of pharma in those days, what is going on?” He said, “We invite the public to our manufacturing facilities. You have to understand something about secrecy in the pharmaceutical business,” he said. In the chemical business, let's say you make a big ticket item like phosgene, thousands of tons of phosgene.

It costs a certain number of dollars per ton. If your competitor could shave even a few pennies off that, they'd get the business. You don't want them to know how you make it for the price you make it. But now look at pharmaceuticals. The production of a drug ain't got nothing to do with the price of the drug.

“The first thing is all the research and development,” he said. “The next thing is clinical trials. We have to pay for those trials. Costs a fortune. Then we have to get it accepted by doctors because they're the ones who are going to prescribe it. That requires all kinds of publicity, packaging, and so on.”

“If some guy comes to where we make Lipitor, and they see the temperature in which we carry out a certain reaction, and they go copy it, we'll take them to court. We will destroy them because we can buy any number of lawyers.” Now, if it's the Chinese, they don't respect patent law, at least in those days. “But by and large, there are no secrets in the places where we make stuff. Now, we're not going to let anybody inspect our research and development laboratories and ask to see our new books, because very often we don't even try to ask for a patent while we're still trying to figure out how to make it.” But it was too late. I had lunch with Roy after the United States had already pulled out of the negotiations. So they collapsed. 

Tell me about your toxin memo.

Toxins are poisonous things that a good chemist could synthesize in a lab, but they're made by living things, by a snake or spider or bacterium.

The question is, are toxins chemical or biological weapons? The British wanted to retain toxins, and because there was only a biological weapons treaty at that time, the British wanted to call toxins chemical weapons, so that if they were made by chemists they would not be prohibited in the Biological Weapons Convention. 

In the United States, we had to decide what we would consider them to be. If they're biologicals, they're prohibited right away, because the biological weapons conventions came first. If they're chemical, the ultimate decision of what these things are, of course, is going to be made by the president. The Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote a paper: they wanted to call them chemical weapons, so that if they're made by chemists, it's okay for the army to have toxic weapons. 

From reading the archives, it looks like the joint chiefs didn't think there was an immediate practical use of toxins, but they wanted to leave that path of research open. 

In general, the joint chiefs don't want to set a precedent of giving up on anything. If you wanted to prohibit fly swatters, probably it's a bad precedent. 

Anyway, the State Department said, “Let's call them biological weapons, because it looks bad for the United States to seem to want to kill people with toxins.” I wrote a paper for Henry called “What Policy for Toxins,” and he read it. I know that because the copy that was given to him is all marked up by his assistant.

One night, the president, Kissinger, and other officials go down to Key Biscayne, which was a resting place for President Nixon. They're down there and they're going to make a decision. Henry had written a paper advocating the middle position, that toxins should be prohibited if they're made by bugs, but permitted if made by chemists. Now of course, if a toxin is used on the battlefield, it's going to be hard to tell who made it. 

Why did Kissinger take that middle position? 

I never asked him, but I could only guess that he didn't want to have to fight with Mel Laird [Nixon’s Secretary of Defense] because he needed Mel Laird on a lot of other issues. Laird's position was that if they're made by chemists, they can be used. The Joint Chiefs’ position was that no matter who makes them, it's okay for us to have them. And the State Department’s position was: no use in any case. 

The paper that Henry had prepared for Nixon had three boxes. One was to renounce toxins no matter what. Another was to renounce them if made by living organisms, but not made by chemists. And the third was, don't renounce him at all. There has to always be a paper record of a presidential decision. What's required is for the president to put a checkmark in one of the boxes and put his initials. 

So they're down in Key Biscayne. I'm out to dinner with my wife, and Henry tries to call me — I learned all this later — because they couldn't find my paper. It's about 8 o'clock at night.

Henry calls Paul Doty, my friend the chemist, who's also a very good friend of Henry, and who he thought might have my paper, and Paul did have my paper, but he couldn't find it either. And then at about 10:30 or 11, Henry calls Paul and says, “We found Meselson's paper. The president has made his decision: we will consider toxins to be prohibited no matter how they're made.” Which was my position. 

And why? What was it in my paper? There wasn't anything about the lack of military utility, nothing like that. There was an editorial writer at the Washington Post named Steve Rosenberg, who had written an editorial about this, which included these words: “How can the president renounce nerve gas only to accept botulism?” 

I was struck by those words. In my paper, in addition to all this stuff about how much artillery projectiles weigh and toxins going through the skin, I had a section called “The Authority and Credibility of the President.” Normally, I would not include such a thing, because I style myself as a scientific and military advisor, not a politician. But since these were not my words, and since they were so on target, I put them in. 

What Henry told me, since then, is: “The only thing that mattered to the president was that section, the authority and credibility of the president. Because of that, President Nixon decided, okay, prohibit them in all occasions. Besides, who gives a shit about them anyway?” 

I have the travel record of the president on that day in Key Biscayne, and I'm trying to work out the timeline. For about eight minutes until 6:45, the president talks to Kissinger, and then he goes to see a movie with the first lady and a couple of Eisenhowers.

Then after the movie, at 10:30, he comes back to the paper. 

Yeah, these are people. They're human beings. Human beings go to movies. They have wives. They eat dinner…

A letter from Meselson to the President, following his decision.

If the Biological Weapons Convention didn't exist or hadn’t been ratified, would we see more proliferation of biological weapons? Or would nations still have hesitations about stockpiling and using them? 

That's a very difficult question to answer. If biological weapons were to come into existence, the first step is a step in somebody's mind. The rate-limiting step is a decision to have biological weapons, right? That's pretty obvious. Once you decide to have them, they're not that difficult – maybe very sophisticated ones, but it's not like nuclear weapons. You don't need to have a great deal of sophistication or money to make some biological weapons. The way to predict what will occur in somebody's mind is almost hopeless. 

All you can say is, keep the incentive low, by making it clear that there would be bad consequences if you did it, that they're not very predictable and might backfire, all of that. But even that is dangerous. Let's say you have a hypothetical person who's never thought about it, but once he hears about it, he says, “Oh, that sounds quite interesting.” In a sense, the best thing is: don't talk about it. Articles in the press that warn about the possibility and speculate may be doing more harm than good. My point of view has always been, keep it quiet. Don't write about it. I'm a little hesitant to even write or talk about it in places where a large number of people might run across your words. 

Did that concern, that you might be increasing the salience of biological weapons by talking about them, come up during your work? Did you worry about that?

Yes. Most of the things I wrote were for private circulation. I never wrote an article or any kind of paper saying they're terrible, let's worry about them. Never. 

When you were advocating in the sixties, you were worried about anthrax and nerve gas. What other weapons were you worried about?

Anthrax was certainly one, and we had weaponized it. Tularemia was another: pasteurella tularensis, sometimes called rabbit fever.

The development of a biological weapon at Fort Detrick is done by a part of the Army which is called the Materiel Command. The Materiel Command invents all kinds of weapons, but unless one of the services — Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines — wants to buy the weapon, it goes nowhere. Someone has to buy it. 

Fort Detrick has had great trouble getting any of the services to want any biological weapon at all. Why is this? In the modern military, you want to have some idea of the weapon’s effects. You need to know how many sorties to fly if you're going to deliver it by aircraft. But unless you know the human dose-response — “How many planes shall I fly, sir?”

Now, with tularemia, we do know the human dose response because during the Vietnam War, the Seventh Day Adventists, who are opposed to military service because it involves killing, become conscientious objectors. But they're very patriotic, and so they volunteer for what’s called Project White Coat to let themselves become infected with pasteurella tularensis. As soon as symptoms develop, they get penicillin, they're fine. Nobody dies. So we were able to give tularemia to hundreds of men, and determined with great accuracy how much it takes to cause an infection, and therefore how many airplanes to fly if you want to make everybody in Moscow have tularemia. Which is a kind of dumb idea anyway, but the Air Force still didn't buy it, so far as I know. I don't think that any biological weapon was ever standardized. 

What lessons are there from chemical and biological deterrence for more contemporary proliferation worries about AI and other threats?

You used the word deterrence. I've never had anything to do with deterrence. Nothing I ever wrote said, “Here's how to deter it.” What I was writing is, don't have it in the first place.

This past summer, we completed the destruction of our chemical weapons stockpile. Are there benchmarks in biology like that you'd like to see achieved? Specific targets we could aim for? 

If it would create more security than insecurity, I would like to see a verification protocol. You have to be careful though, because if it's a kind of protocol that can be effectively criticized as being useless, it could cause more harm than good. Because that would make people think, “Oh, if it's so easy to get away with it.”

But it's good to have a treaty even if there's no verification. This is not my thinking. This is the thinking of a remarkable man who was a Soviet negotiator for the CWC.

He lives in New York now, he’s a very good friend, and he explained the following to me. He said, “Usually decisions on whether to have something like a biological weapons program are made by a committee, so they're all sitting around the table. You have a representative of the foreign office, there's some military guys, maybe there's some psychological warfare guy, God knows. Maybe there's someone from the office of the head of state. They're all sitting there, and the question comes up, let's have some biological weapons.”

“And there's no effective verification. Okay, we're for it. Let's do it. But then some guy from the foreign office, says, ‘What if they find out about it? There's definitely a problem there because we have some negotiations ongoing with this country.’ It's very important that the heads of state believe each other. It's okay for underlings to lie. Remember the U-2 which was shot down by the Russians? Before we knew that the Russians had shot it down, the CIA told President Eisenhower that it was a weather surveillance plane, and Eisenhower repeated that to [Soviet premier] Khrushchev

Then it turns out that they have not only the plane, but they have Francis Gary Powers, and it's not a weather plane. It's a spy plane. George Kistiakowsky was Eisenhower's science advisor, a Harvard colleague, and the one who designed the trigger on the plutonium bomb. George said that this destroyed Eisenhower. Eisenhower had it in mind that, during the last months of his presidency, he could bring about a detent with Khrushchev, but once his credibility was destroyed in the mind of Khrushchev, it was over. 

It's okay if your secretary of this or that lies, and there are some things that maybe the head of state should not say. But if he says a lie to the other head of state, what good is talking? So this is a very important principle. It destroyed Eisenhower: according to Kistiakowsky, he was a broken man. He had hoped to end the Cold War. Who knows if he could or not, but this destroyed him. 

What lessons does your career hold for people working on non-proliferation of other weapons today? 

The one advice I would give, I'm not sure is possible, it's very simple: Go to the top. But if I had not known Henry Kissinger, I'm not sure I could have done that. Maybe I could have persuaded McGeorge Bundy, because he was the dean who hired me. We were on a joking basis with each other. I can’t tell you… Oh, I'll tell you anyway. I was at Caltech, and I'm appointed now as associate professor with tenure at Harvard. So I have to sign a loyalty oath.

In those days, to be a Harvard professor, you have to sign a loyalty oath. Loyalty to what? To support the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. So I look for a copy of that in the L.A. public library. They don't have it. I write back to McGeorge Bundy, “Could you send me a copy? Because I can't swear to support this constitution if I can't know what's in it.” He sends me his desk copy and asks me to please return it. In the first chapter, it reserves the right to rebel against the central government: because originally, that's the king of England – they haven't changed a damn thing.

I write back to McGeorge Bundy, because now I see the whole thing's a joke, and I say, “I will consider swearing to uphold the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but it competes with the Constitution of the United States of America. So I need to know their relative military capabilities.”

So he writes back that he's gone into the faculty room at Harvard, and he sees a pair of muskets crossed on the wall. He also knows that every year at commencement, the sheriff of Middlesex County comes to Harvard on a horse, so he could promise two muskets and a horse. So I agreed to sign, and I signed. Harvard in its great wisdom no longer requires this. 

But I'm afraid that for most issues, the ordinary person, even a very distinguished person, it’s not so easy to go to the top. 

One theme I hear you saying is, a lane opened up for you, but you were ready for it. You already had your argument and were writing the papers and had the research and so on. So when you got access straight to the top, you were ready to take that lane. 

In your scientific career, you've been astonishingly productive. To what can we chalk up your productivity? 

I think I've been very lucky. I had parents who were completely permissive. They let me do whatever I wanted. I had a big laboratory in the garage that completely displaced my dad's car from the garage. I purified rare earths: neodymium, samarium, and sold them to buy more chemical equipment when I was in junior high school.

They let me go to the University of Chicago, where all the gangsters are, dangerous place. I was only 16 years old, but Chicago didn’t require a high school diploma. See, during the war [WWII], it felt unpatriotic to just goof off during the summertime. I think a lot of kids felt that way. So you’d get a job, or go to summer school. 

I did both, but in summer school, I got some credits. And then when I went back to John Marshall High School, in Hollywood, I went to the registrar and said, “I'd like my diploma. I have all the credits.” She said in California, you have to have three full years of high school physical education, and you have only two. Therefore, I should spend a year of my life running around the track? 

So that opened my eyes. Otherwise, I'd just been moving with the forces. I looked around, what could I do? And I learned about Robert Maynard Hutchins and the University of Chicago. 

I went there thinking, oh great, now I'm going to study physics and chemistry and math. But he'd abolished the bachelor's degree in science. 

To focus on liberal arts? 

Exactly. There was no choice. The only kind of bachelor's degree they offered was you read the classics, which was very lucky for me because otherwise I never, ever would have read anything, but at least I'm slightly educated. 

What was the best thing you read in that great books education? 

The Brothers Karamazov. It’s incredible. And then Dostoyevsky didn't get to the other two books, for the other two brothers. This is all about Alyosha. Will Father Zosima decay after he dies? Or is he a saintly man? It's such a book. Did you ever read Crime and Punishment


It scared the hell out of me. The suspense. 

Other things I read also impressed me a lot, of course: The Peloponnesian War. I still read it. Thucydides himself contracted the plague of Athens, and he describes his symptoms and does some very interesting epidemiology. He asked, where did it come from? At this time, the Spartans were blockading naval traffic from Scythia, but that's where the Athenians got their grain from, so they were being starved out. That meant the only shipping coming into the Piraeus, the port city of Athens, was from Africa. Thucydides asked, what's coming from Africa? Exotic tropical birds for the oligarchs, he says. 

Now, I belong to a little club here in Cambridge, and once a month we meet during term, and each time somebody has to give a talk. And John Enders, who got the Nobel Prize for learning how to culture human cells in Petri dishes, gave a talk on the plague of Athens. 

This was at the same time that at laboratories in Marburg, Germany, and London, England, people got a lethal disease and died. Marburg fever, you may have heard of it, it's one of those hemorrhagic viruses like Ebola. John Enders wanted to where it came from.

So he began to do some research, and he finds out that there were shipments of monkeys to both labs from the same monkey place in Africa. A place in North Africa that was actually run by an illegitimate son of Thomas Mann


Yeah. That's beside the point, of course. But this was the common factor in the two labs, suggesting that the virus was carried by the monkeys. Investigators were sent to the monkey farm, and there was no trace of the virus at the farm, but it was clearly in the monkeys that had arrived at the laboratories, strongly suggesting that the monkeys got infected, not in Africa, but somewhere between Africa and the two labs.

Wait, where could that be? The answer, of course, is in transit from Africa. Now, if you go to England, have you ever gone to England? 

I worked in London for a summer. 

Did you have a dog? 

I did not. 

If you have brought a dog, you have to go quarantine at Heathrow. They have a big shed there, and that's where the animals go for quarantine. So John Anders looked into this, and he finds out that these monkeys were in that shed. Then Anders found out what was next to them in this shed. Now I will ask you, what do you think it was? Remember what Thucydides said. 

Oh, was it?


Tropical birds.

Yes. Exactly. Now, this could have been pure coincidence. I don't know. Fantastic talk that John Enders gave us. But it also shows that Thucydides was just incredibly great. 

The symptoms that Thucydides records, by the way, include one very specific thing, which is that you're awfully sick, and then everything looks okay for a couple of days, and then it comes back. Thucydides said that happened. That's also true of Marburg fever. It could have been. It could have been. Who knows?

An archive of Meselson’s papers can be found here.

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Santi Ruiz