Sunday, February 19, 2017
Exhibit Hall (Hynes Convention Center)
Kathryn Maxson Jones, Princeton University, Lafayette, IN
Background: In 1962, Francis Schmitt, first head of the MIT Biology Department, founded the Neurosciences Research Program (NRP). Through this interdisciplinary network of scientists, knitted together by “whither neuroscience?” meetings, Schmitt sought nothing less than to unravel the mysteries of the brain, from its biological foundations to consciousness. The NRP wrought profound influence on what was becoming the new discipline of neuroscience, giving rise, for instance, to its first statement of objectives in 1967 (The Neurosciences: a study program). How did Schmitt, who focused on the fundamental cellular structures of muscle and collagen alongside those of nerve—and who was only beginning to incorporate digital computers into his investigations—come to ask such higher-order questions about the mind and brain? Methods: This study relies on Schmitt’s personal papers and the records of the NRP, which reveal much about Schmitt’s choices of experimental organisms and questions alongside the personal, social, scientific, and institutional factors undergirding the birth of the NRP. Of particular importance to this paper are archived grant applications, letters, and speeches from the 1950s and 1960s. Results: Schmitt’s interest in the nervous system began in graduate school. In 1936, in Woods Hole, J.Z. Young introduced him to the squid giant axon. As materials for studying action potentials with electrodes and electron microscopy, giant axons dominated Schmitt’s nerve work for the next three decades. Squid research, in turn, guided his critical lens towards the macromolecular assemblies that form spontaneously in salt water, thereby spurring his interest in the complex mental properties that might emerge from relatively simple chemical systems. This demonstrably undergirded Schmitt’s establishment of the NRP, yet his devout Lutheranism was also a factor. Revealed through letters and speeches, Schmitt’s faith supported his penchant for emergent, systemic explanations in living systems, even as he built a reputation for detailed molecular descriptions. Conclusions: In founding the NRP Schmitt transitioned from research on universal life properties, interrogated with microscopy, microelectrodes, and fractionation and purification, to those presumed to exist only in higher vertebrates. He viewed his program as larger than, and thus inclusive of, the biology of genetic macromolecules like DNA. This suggests that the story of the molecular life sciences after 1953, frequently told as a “transition” from the double helix to neurobiology, should be broadened.