On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 6 — John W. Campbell, James Watson, and Francis Crick

“This is a member of a supremely intelligent race, a race that has learned the deepest secrets of biology, and turned them to its use.” – Blair, Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr.

In Who Goes There? (1938) a group of scientists in an isolated Antarctica research station find a monstrous creature frozen in the ice which, when thawed, grows murderous while perfectly mimicking people down to their deepest of cellular structures. The isolated setting and ominous threat to humanity make it a deeply paranoid and claustrophobic story, in which the scientists must pool their collective expertise to save the world. It was the best thing John. W. Campbell ever wrote (and was later adapted for film as The Thing From Another Planet in 1951, then again as The Thing in 1982 and 2011), and the year of its publication marked a turning point in the history of science fiction—the start of the “Golden Age.”

The formula for Campbell’s success evolved out of the imagination of the manic entrepreneur and radio enthusiast/salesman Hugo Gernsback. Gernsback, born in Luxembourg in 1884, emigrated to the United States in 1904, where he began importing radio parts from Europe. Gernsback wanted to get people excited about the future of technology (ostensibly to sell more radio parts) and his first foray into publishing was to start Modern Electrics in 1908; when he recognized the rise in popularity of the pulps, he created the first “scientifiction” pulp magazine in 1926. Amazing Stories differentiated itself by printing only science fiction stories, and while his writing was poor and his editorials enthusiastically childish, Gernsback introduced a new generation of readers to Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. Gernsback’s fixation on all things fiscal was ultimately his downfall. Between starting multiple new (competing) pulps, and paying little to nothing to his writers (and becoming embroiled in lawsuits), he declared bankruptcy in 1929 and gave control of his magazines to other publishers.

Just as the birth of modern science fiction drew on multiple influences leading up to the remarkable career of John W. Campbell, the discovery of the structure of DNA required far more than just the ingenuity of James Watson and Francis Crick. While Gernsback was publishing the first issue of Amazing Stories, Frederick Griffith, an English bacteriologist, published a study which would have a cascading effect through scientific history. During the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, pneumonia was a rapidly fatal complication which caused the deaths of 20 million people worldwide. Griffith was a medical officer with the British Ministry of Health in the 1920s where he focused his efforts on discovering what made the pneumococcus bacteria so deadly. Pneumococcus came in two strains—smooth (easily killed by the immune system) and rough (which easily evaded the immune system). Griffith injected various combinations of bacteria into mice to see which ones would cause death, and found when rough bacteria were heat-killed and mixed with live smooth bacteria, smooth bacteria transformed into rough and killed the mice, but when the heat-killed mixture alone was injected, the mice survived. The conclusion Griffith came to in his 1928 paper was that the genetic information existed somewhere in the heat-killed mixture, which could be physically transferred between bacteria. Unfortunately, it was published in such an obscure journal that it would be another decade before Griffith’s findings would achieve their full and far-reaching impact.

John W. Campbell had much loftier aspirations for his publications. The roaring success of Gernsback’s Amazing Stories inspired rival publishers to start their own scientifiction pulps, including Astounding Stories of Super Science. Under the editorial direction of F. Orlin Tremaine, an experienced pulp editor, Astounding soon overtook Gernsback’s magazines to become the market leader in 1934. Tremaine wanted speculations not only on technology, but also its social implications, pushing beyond Gernsback’s gadget-centric focus. An eager reader of Amazing Stories, Campbell began writing his own “scientification” stories in 1928 at age 18 while a student at MIT, but Campbell’s early work was of the Gernsback type, space operas filled with gadgets and romance (in fact, he published a few stories with Gernsback as his editor), but it was in the pages of Astounding under Tremaine where Campbell found his feet. As a result, Campbell began to publish more literary stories under his pen name Don. A. Stuart (a play on his wife’s maiden name, Dona Stewart) exclusively for Astounding. It was under this pen name that Campbell published Who Goes There? in 1938.

While Astounding was taking over of the science fiction market in 1933, Griffith’s paper found its way to Oswald Avery, a microbiologist working on pneumococcus at New York’s Rockefeller University. At the time, biochemists had begun sifting through the chemical makeup of cells, and chromatin, the likely genetic material, was determined to be made up of proteins and nucleic acids. The proteins were a better candidate as they widely varied in form and function, while nucleic acids were better suited to be structural molecules. After all, there were countless protein varieties, but only two kinds of nucleic acids: deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA), both made of four different bases – adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T) in DNA and A, C, G and uracil (U) in RNA. The bases were strung together in a chain, always in equal proportions of A/T, and C/G. Max Delbrück went so far as to call it a “stupid molecule.” Intrigued by the promise of finding the genetic material in the heat-killed bacterial soup, Avery meticulously separated and tested every cellular component for the transformative property but kept coming back to the same answer: DNA. A bewildered Avery published his paper in 1944, to the general consternation of the community. What made this stupid molecule so special?

In 1937, while Avery was busily sifting through cellular debris, Tremaine assumed editorial responsibilities of a number of different magazines. Stretched too thin, he passed his editorial duties on to Campbell. One of Campbell’s first acts as editor was to change the name from Astounding Stories to Astounding Science Fiction, officially enshrining the term “science fiction” as the name of the developing genre. Tremaine’s notable influence on the magazine had been his “thought variant” stories, one per issue, which focused on a new concept or variant on an established story type; Campbell, through his focused editorial hand, would take Tremaine’s lead and apply it to all of the fiction he would edit, pulling the genre out and upward from its pulpy roots.

The same year Avery’s 1944 paper was published, Erwin Schrödinger, the Austrian quantum physicist, provided another important inspiration in the ongoing search for the key to passing on genetic information. The rise of Nazi Germany chilled the once vibrant and important world capital of physics research, causing scientists to flee to other countries. Many saw the change of scientific scenery as an opportunity to apply their mastery of the subatomic realm to the molecular one. Schrödinger’s What is Life? was a series of lectures which used what was known of the properties of genetic material and what was known about the physics of life to deduce the structure the genetic material should have: regular enough to be copied and transmitted, but irregular enough to account for the diversity of life—an aperiodic crystal. These two publications set the stage for an amusing cast of characters to reconcile Schrödinger’s requirements with Avery’s findings.

An eccentric cast of characters also helped to bring about the Golden Age under Campbell. Campbell was a very active and involved editor, suggesting story ideas, and heavily editing to make stories fit his own particular vision (sometimes without the writer’s consent). There was nearly always some technology or technological threat to be overcome by scientific ingenuity in the fiction he edited, but he pushed his writers to more broadly think through the societal implications of technology and the impact it had beyond the characters and plot. In short, Campbell was pushing for a unification between the genre’s pulp trappings and Modernist traditions. Furthermore, Campbell nurtured the careers of countless notable writers. He was the first to publish Robert Heinlein, one of the dominant writers of the Golden Age, publishing the author’s first future histories, including Methuselah’s Children (1941). He also published early stories by Isaac Asimov, including both the Foundation and robot stories. Campbell was also the first publisher of Arthur C. Clarke, A.E. Van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, Lester del Rey, Hal Clement, Fritz Leiber, Clifford D. Simak, and L. Ron Hubbard.

On the scientific side of our equation, a similarly notable and eccentric cast assembled for the eventual discovery of the structure of DNA. Francis Crick grew up in Northampton, England, and was attracted to science as a young man, preferring the answers science gave him over the ones religion offered. He pursued his interest in physics, math, and chemistry into a doctoral program at University of College London, but his studies were interrupted during World War II when a bomb fell through the roof of his lab and destroyed his apparatus. Crick enlisted and worked in military research to help develop magnetic and acoustic mines; then, after the war, he switched his focus to biology after reading What is Life? Crick believed biology could be tamed in the same way physics had been, but the marriage of ideas really appealed to him. He was a also a great admirer of Linus Pauling, an American biochemist who used x-ray crystallography (a method of crystallizing a molecule of interest and bouncing x-rays from it from various angles to deduce its structure from the angles of deflection) to deduce the structure of the hemoglobin protein, and who had won the Nobel prize for his elegant work on elucidating the precise nature of chemical bonds. Pauling, too, was going after the structure of DNA, and at Cambridge, Crick joined the Cavendish Laboratory in their effort to beat Pauling to the punch.

James Watson read What is Life? in 1946 as a student at the University of Chicago and immediately changed his focus from birds to genetics. An ambitious student, Watson sought out the most notable names in the field and upon his graduation started his doctoral work under Hermann Muller at the University of Indiana. Realizing flies were a dead end when it came to investigating the structure of DNA, he switched to phage research under Salvador Luria, who wanted to understand the basis of viral transmission in bacteria. Under Luria, Watson learned of Avery’s paper, and later, on a trip to Italy, Watson attended a talk by Maurice Wilkins, a British biophysicist at King’s College London who had been similarly convinced of DNA’s identity as the genetic material (and was likewise inspired by Schrödinger and Avery), but who took a more molecular approach to the problem. Watson immediately understood that the key to DNA wasn’t to be found through a genetic approach, but through a more mechanistic one; through a series of funding contortions, Watson deposited himself at Cambridge in 1951, where he sought to marry his own background with the structural expertise of the researchers in the Cavendish lab, where he met Crick. Crick, a bombastic personality who loved to embrace bigger picture ideas, and Watson, ever the social climber, soon became fast friends, and threw themselves into the work of deducing the structure of DNA.

Across the Atlantic, a similar centralization of expertise in science fiction was happening under Campbell’s watch. While Campbell’s magazine format was the same as Gernsback and Tremaine’s in terms of fiction, editorials, and advertisements, Campbell opened up the fan letter sections to be a free-for-all from Tremaine’s more technical articles, which gave fans a sense of ownership and participation in the field. Early contributions from Damon Knight, Frederik Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth, Judith Merril, and James Blish would form a basis of critical analysis of the field and its history that continues today. Additionally, the letters sections gave rise to social clubs, fandoms, and eventually conventions, which have grown into a cornerstone of the science fiction community.

Meanwhile, thanks to Crick’s experience with x-ray crystallography and friendship with Wilkins, Watson and Crick had access to the x-ray crystallography photographs of DNA taken by Rosalind Franklin, a researcher working alongside Wilkins in John Randall’s biophysics lab. Franklin was brilliant chemist and had distinguished herself for her exceptional crystallographic work on viruses and coal, and the tireless improvements she made to her technique enabled her to capture the best photographs of DNA to date. Watson and Crick worked from Franklin’s pictures (obtained under questionable circumstances), and drawing from Pauling’s work on the nature of chemical bonds, they commissioned precise molecular models of the bases and sugar phosphate backbone components of DNA to be machined. In the end, it was one part brute force and two parts inspiration that resulted in the first model of the DNA double helix. The model revealed the 1:1 ratios of A/T and C/G were equal because A’s would bind to T’s, just as C’s would to G’s, in two complementary and stable strands, turning in a tight helical shape—a regular but aperiodic crystal. The 128-line paper was published in Nature in 1953.

By the end of the 1950s, Campbell’s monopolistic grip on science fiction was in decline. Both his longtime interest in pseudoscience and his guarded but enthusiastic dalliances with Hubbard’s Dianetics alienated him from many writers, including Heinlein, Sturgeon, Asimov, and Clarke, and as the years passed, Campbell would write essays supporting segregation, even suggesting that some people preferred slavery, and rejecting Samuel Delany’s novel Nova for serialization in 1967 because he believed his readers wouldn’t be able to relate to a black main character. Campbell would never again hold the same sway over the field, though he served as editor of Astounding (later renamed Analog Science Fiction and Fact) until his death in 1971. Both Gernsback and Campbell would have major awards name for them acknowledging the roles they played in establish the community that flourished thanks to those early magazines—respectively, the Hugo Awards, and both the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

Crick and Watson would win the Nobel Prize for their work on the structure of DNA, along with Wilkins, in 1962. As the prize is not be awarded posthumously, Franklin went unacknowledged, as she had died four years earlier of cancer at age 38. Watson would move on to Harvard, where he wrote the perennial textbooks The Molecular Biology of the Gene and The Molecular Biology of the Cell before becoming the director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York in 1968. Watson made Cold Spring Harbor into a world-class research institution through the expansion of the research and education programs, but resigned from his position in 2008 after making numerous (and repeated) racist statements. Crick at first focused on elucidating the mechanisms behind what he called the “central dogma” of molecular biology, or how genes became proteins, before becoming a distinguished professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California, where his wide-ranging interests led him to focus on theoretical neurobiology and the study of human consciousness, which he studied until his death in 2004.

The discovery of the structure of DNA would have wide-reaching consequences in the field of biology, just as Campbell’s influence has had wide-reaching consequences within the world of science fiction. In the next installments of this series, we will tease apart and explore the nature of those consequences as we learn more about both the central dogma of biology and the various ripples the Golden Age writers set in motion.

Kelly Lagor is a scientist by day and a science fiction writer by night. Her work has appeared at Tor.com and other places, and you can find her tweeting about all kinds of nonsense @klagor

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