"I DO NOT BELIEVE that people are so simple they can function in only one channel," said Rene Dubos, whose own accomplishments range from discovering the precursors of the first commercial antibiotics in 1939 to writing more than 20 books on science and culture -- one of which. So Human an Animal, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969. A six-foot, rosy-cheeked man of 78, Dubos speaks with a French accent that is still strong after 55 years of residence in the United States. We sat recently in his office at the Rockefeller University in New York City -- a spacious, cheerfully decorated room with a painting of Don Quixote on the wall above the desk -- and talked about the many channels in which his life and work have flowed.
"I never really decided to go into science," he said. "It was more a matter of taking occasions as they presented themselves." Dubos was born February 20, 1901, in a village north of Paris. As a schoolboy he had wanted to become an historian, but he abandomed the idea in 1918 after his father's death and the consequent financial plight of the family.
"I didn't feel I could make a living as an historian, so I went to a technical school, a school of agriculture." This was the Institut National Agronomique, which Dubos graduated from in 1921. Next he found a job in Rome as an editor on a journal published by the International Institute of Agriculture. His mind, however, was set on something else.
"I was an adventurer . . . As a young boy in the village where I grew up I had developed a passion for Buffalo Bill and the Wild West -- you know, there was so much in the French magazines about such things . . . And then, later, when I was older, I had continued to be intensely interested in everything about the U.S. So when I was in Rome, at the age of 23, I finally decided I'd give it a try and go there."
To earn the money for the trip, he took an extra job as a tour guide in Rome. "As soon as I had gotten enough money, I boarded a ship for the U.S. I had no definite plan. While on the ship, however, someone tapped me on the shoulder."
The "someone" was Dr. Selman Waksman, who was to win the Nobel Prize in 1952 for his discovery of the anti-biotic streptomycin. Waksman, then head of the soil microbiology division at Rutgers University, had been shown around Rome by Dubos and had recognized his former tour guide. "We became better acquainted, and . . . he suggested I go to his university and study microbiology. So that's where I went to apply."
When Dubos received his PhD from Ruthers in 1927, "it was very difficult getting jobs," he said, "and the fact that I was not an American citizen made it even more difficult." In his search, he went to the Rockefeller Institute (now Rockefeller University). "During lunch, I was placed next to a certain gentleman, a very charming person, who happened to be the chief of infectious diseases at the hospital." This was Oswald T. Avery, the great bacteriologist, who later, in 1944, published a paper claiming that genes, the material responsible for the transmission of hereditary traits, consist of DNA.
"Dr. Avery asked me what my doctoral thesis had been about, I told him that in my research I had isolated, from the soil, bacteria that decompose cellulose (a carbohydrate found widely in plants). And all of a sudden he became interested and said, Well, that's not unlikely something we're interested in. So he took me to his office and explained to me -- because I didn't know my medical microbiology at that time -- that the pneumococus, the germ associated with labor pneumonia, is capable of causing the disease because it is surrounded by an envelope, a capsule which is made up of a substance, not unlikely cellulose [both being polysaccharides, a type of carbohydrate] and that they had never been able to find anything to decompose that substance.
The problem which Avery was dealing with involved the revolutionary view that carbohydrates, not just proteins, play a basic role in the immune processes of the body.
"So I told him" -- and now Dubos' face grew red and he grinned -- "Well, I have nothing to do this summer. I might gave it a try. I'm sure I could succeed.'"
A few days later, he received a telegram offering him a fellowship from the Rockefeller Institute. Apparently Avery had decided that the brash young Frenchman might succeed where he had for more than four years failed. The decision proved to be well founded. In 1929, two years after joining the Rockefeller Institute, Dubos managed to extract, from an until then unknown species of soil microorganism, an enzyme which would decompose or "digest" the polysaccharide capsule of the pneumococcus. The phenomenon which Dubos had discovered is called "enzyme induction"; in 1965, Andre Lwoff, Jacques Monod, and Francois Jacob were awarded the Nobel Prize for elaborating its genetic mechanism. Today, after more than 50 years of association with the Rockefeller University (he is now professor emeritus), Dubos regards his work with "induced enzymes" as the most important of his scientific career.
"I didn't call them induced enzymes,' though. I called them adaptive enzymes, and I still like my expression better." Dubos technique had involved growing the microorganisms in the laboratory under nutritionally deprived conditions; only under these conditions could they be made to produce an emzyme that would "attack" the polysaccharide. "I used the word "adaptive" because it was a way for the organism to adapt itself to a certain difficult situation, namely, a situation where it could not live without digesting the substance. The reason I insist on this is that this was, from the point of view of my entire scientific development, the crucial observation I made. It immediately gave me that the conviction, a really emotional conviction, that all organisms, at all levels of complexity, have abilities to adapt themselves to all sorts of conditions . . . The word 'adaptive' expressed my belief that life carries with it multiple potentialities."
One important area outside the laboratory where Dubos was to apply this concept was in the social and psychological aspects of disease. In his book Louis Pasteur: Freelance of Science (1950), The White Plague: Tuberculosis, Man and Society (1952), The Mirage of Health (1959), The Dreams of Reason (1961) and others, Dubos maintained that the incidence and prevalence of disease are functions not of isolated factors -- biological or otherwise -- but of the environment in which the disease occurs. A particular microoganism may be a necessary condition for initiating the disease, but it is by no means a sufficient one. Citing examples which ranged from ancient to modern times, he hypothesized "that any kind of stress, whatever its nature upsets the general resistance of the human being and renders him more susceptiable to disease."
Dubos' reflections on the nature of disease had a personal and, in this case, a tragic basis. "In 1940, my wife, who was French, developed tuberculosis . . . And when I examined her past environment in France where she had grown up, as well as her medical records, I realized that she had probably had the disease as a young girl and had been spontaneously cured by means of her body's natural defense mechanisms -- something which has been shown to happen in many cases. But in 1940, there was the war. We didn't suffer here, but all her family in France had trememdous problems, and she went through terrible emotional stress, shortly after which she developed the disease. And that suggested to me that it was the emotional stress that had reactivated a dormant condition of TB in her." Dubos' wife, Marie Louise Bonnet, made a partial recovery which left her in a weakened condition. Then, "one day when we were walking on 57th Street where she used to have a studio -- she was a pianist -- all of a sudden she went into a state of panic as she realized that she no longer had the strength to play. Within three weeks her disease reactivated and she died."
Prompted by his wife's death, Dubos (who has since remarried) began his research into tuberculosis which continued until the early 1950s. He revolutionized laboratory procedures for the preparation of cultures containing the Mycobacterium tuberculosis organism and contributed enormously to the understanding of chemical and biological factors affecting its virulence.
As he was completing his tuberculosis research, Dubos began devoting increasing time to environmental issues, speaking out against a host of biological and ecological hazards, including everything from chemical carcinogens and enzyme detergents to the SST and the breeder reactor program.
"My personal feeling is that it is impossible to think of the earth without recognizing that one of the most important components of the system is human beings." Ecology is a question, for Dubos, not just of preserving the quality of the environment, but of making some sort of judgement about what we want this quality to be. He had often argued that the greatest threat to human kind many not be the environmental hazards themselves but our capacity to accommodate ourselves successfully to those hazards -- an accommodation which can occur only by means of undesirable social and cultural mechanisms.
"I have become convinced that if we are to deal with the environmental problem, we have to realize that the quality of the environment implies many things besides those which affect health. It implies what it is we like and dislike in it, how we function in it, and a whole series of judgements, both ethical and esthetic, concerning the kind of life we want to lead."
For Dubos, a purely technical and scientific approach to the solution of human problems, environmental or otherwise, is of limited value. But this judgement rests ultimately on his conception of the nature of living processes in general. I quoted to him a passage from James D. Watson's Molecular Biology of the Gene : "The current extension of our understanding of biologist phenomena to the molecular level (molecular biology) will soon enable us to understate all the basis features of the living state."
"Yes, yes, I know that passage," he said mournfully. "And I should say I'm very much disturbed by that kind of thing . . . I recognize, of course, the importance of what has been done in molecular biology. And I admit that, yes, we know fairly well the mechanisms by which the hereditary characteristics are transferred -- but from there to state that we understand life ! This is a word which, as we use it, is simply not encompassed by a molecule. Life implies an organization, an ability to adapt to change . . . even a 'capacity to blunder,' as Lewis Thomas cleverly points out in his book [The Medusa and the Snail ]. It is this capacity for the DNA molecule to blunder, to undergo mutations and other changes which makes evolution, and therefore life as we know it, possible at all . . . There's great mystery in this phenomenon we call life."
Dubos rejects a strictly deterministic view of living processes. However, he says he does not mean to imply that this view has no validity; rather, he is saying there are limits, to its validity and that science need not confine itself within such limits. For Dubos, as for one of his scientific "heros," Louis Pasteur, science is really a kind of "natural philosophy"; its most important facets are not technical but personal, social and philosophical. From Dubos' perspective it is not even correct to say there exists a sharp dichotomy between science and religion. Religion and its "mysteries" are not irrelevant to the concerns of science. It is true that science provides, indepently of religion and philosophy, many of the "right" answers, but says Dubos, science must rely ultimately on religion and philosophy for the right questions.
"If the scientist doesn't start with a sense of mystery, he doesn't start." For Dubos, who is a deeply religious man ("Not that I go to church every Sunday; I don't"), the answers which science gives serve less to dispel mystery from life than to heighten our sensitivity to it. As he wrote in The Dreams of Reason , "Science is like a revelation that enlarges awareness by sharpening and extending the direct perceptions from which philosophy originated."
Today, Rene Dubos conducts his affairs much as he has for the last few decades, spending whatever time he can spare at his country home in Garrison, N.Y., and going to his office weekdays at the Rockefeller University in Manhattan. Though he no longer works in the laboratory, he teaches, writes, serves on various advisory boards. He is preparing a television program on the environment and organizing a conference to educate young scientists and others on the humanistic aspects of science and technology. His new book, The Wooing of the Earth , will be published in the spring.
As for the events which led to his settling in the United States 55 years ago, he has no regrets. "Of course I love Paris and French life in general. But in France there's a kind of formality which, however much I admire from a distance, becomes painful after 24 hours of direct contact. . . I think I have been happier here than I could have been in France. I love Manhattan. The phenomenal diversity of people stimulates me enormously."
Before leaving Dr. Dubos' office I asked him about an award, displayed on one of the walls; which cited his efforts in "bridging the two cultures" of the sciences and the humanities. He told me that the award, which had been presented to him by a local high school in Queens was of great significance to him. "I have 50 honorary degrees, but that's the only one I exhibit," he said. "For me, though, it's not just a question of bridging the two cultures.' It's something much more important than that. It's that any activity in which humans are engaged, from the most scientific and technical to the most esthetic and humanistic, involves a whole range of emotional and cultural components. I do not believe that people are so simple they can function in only one channel."