He Has Made the World a Safer Place

A symposium honors a scientist who championed biological and chemical weapons control.

Matthew Meselson
Photograph by Constance Brukin
Mathew Meselson and John HoldrenPhotograph by Jonathan Shaw/Harvard Magazine
Meselson (center) in Sverdlovsk, 1992
Susan Lindquist and Steve Henikoff

On Thursday, May 31, former students, friends, and colleagues of molecular biologist Matthew Meselson, Cabot professor of natural sciences, gathered at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to celebrate the 88th birthday of a pioneering scholar who has been, simultaneously, a preeminent champion of biological and chemical weapons control. Even the audience was remarkable: among the attendees were current or former faculty members including Nobel Prize-winning chemists Dudley Herschbach and Walter Gilbert and Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine James Watson; Meselson’s former postdoctoral fellow and Nobel laureate in chemistry, Sidney Altman; geneticist George Church; molecular biologists Catherine Dulac and Gary Ruvkun; former U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, now director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; and John Holdren, former science adviser to President Barack Obama.

Meselson first distinguished himself in 1958 as a graduate student of Linus Pauling’s at the California Institute of Technology, according to his 2004 Lasker Award citation, when he and a colleague “provided compelling support for Watson and Crick’s proposed mechanism of DNA replication, and for their double-stranded helical model of DNA.” As part of this experiment, Meselson invented a new measurement technique that helped establish the existence of messenger RNA in 1961. Professor of medicine Howard Hiatt, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health from 1972 to 1984, who was also involved in that discovery, rose from the audience to recount an anecdote. Meselson and his colleagues Sydney Brenner and François Jacob, Hiatt recalled, had made the discovery of messenger RNA two or more weeks before similar work by James Watson was ready for publication. Watson called and asked them “to hold off”—to delay publication of their paper. Meselson and colleagues* (see below) generously obliged, and the two papers were published simultaneously.

More than a dozen distinguished former students gave presentations on their scientific research, remarkable for its sheer diversity—as Meselson himself noted in later remarks—and vivid examples of the kind of exciting, innovative research Meselson encouraged: topics ranged from gene regulation (Mark Ptashne) to centromeres (the specialized site where two sister chromosomes join—Steve Henikoff) to the role of heat-shock proteins (proteins produced by cells during stressful conditions) in aging and disease (Rick Morimoto), to the organization of human microbiomes (Jessica Mark Welch). Another exemplar was the late Susan Lindquist, director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research (pictured in the photo gallery above), whose risk-taking research in protein folding led to the discovery of a mechanism by which evolution conserves accumulating mutations, revealing them simultaneously and abruptly at times of environmental stress (see “What Stress Reveals” for a description). 

The final presentation focused on Meselson’s current research, which has centered on bdelloid rotifers, an ancient class of invertebrates generally thought to be entirely asexual (see “An Evolutionary Scandal”). Recently, however, Meselson and his colleagues published evidence that bdelloids occasionally reproduce sexually, thereby removing what had been a challenge to the view that sexual reproduction is essential to long-term evolutionary success. But they remain interesting research subjects: as former student Karine Van Doninck, an environmental and evolutionary biologist explained, bdelloids have an extraordinary ability to repair their own DNA after it is broken by severe desiccation or irradiation.

Against Weaponizing Life

The symposium then turned for the remainder of the afternoon to Meselson’s other major contribution: weapons control. As Ashton Carter put it, “Matt, more than any other person in the world, is responsible for the Biological Weapons Convention, which expresses the abhorrence of humankind towards the weaponization of biology, of life itself being used against life.”

Ashton Carter
Photograph by Jonathan Shaw/Harvard Magazine

Meselson was early to this fight, having co-written a letter to President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, signed by 5,000 other scientists, urging him to review U.S. policy for chemical and biological weapons and not to use such weapons in Vietnam. Later, he wrote papers for Henry Kissinger ’50, Ph.D. ’54, when the latter was President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser. Nixon ended the U.S. biological-weapons program in 1969.

Ambassador Michael Guhin, a special negotiator with the U.S. State Department, recalled that Kissinger told him, “‘You should get to know Matt Meselson,’” a “well-respected outside expert” on the issues concerning biological warfare. Meselson’s reach was extensive, said Guhin. “He influenced people on the Hill, he influenced people in the executive branch. I can’t tell you how many meetings I went to where somebody would say, ‘Matt said this….’ Matt clearly had the respect and ear of Kissinger, and from that he had a path to the ear of the president.”

Guhin then shared an anecdote from the period after Nixon banned biological weapons. “Everybody said, ‘Well, what do we do with toxins now?” Wondering whether toxins were covered under the convention, the Department of Defense, he continued, wanted both greater clarity and more leeway. “When I briefed Kissinger,” he recalled, “I drew on what I thought were Matt’s words that ‘The president did not renounce typhoid in November only to embrace botulism in February.’ As it turned out, the president agreed.” 

Meselson and Kissinger in 2017
Photograph by Mario Morgado / The Rockefeller University

Toxins were banned, and eventually restrictions were placed on herbicides, tear gas, and other substances. (Meselson takes no credit for the famous phrase about botulism and typhoid, which he had quoted in a memo for Kissinger, with attribution to an editorial in The Washington Post.) Meselson wanted more, Guhin recalled, but his achievements were nevertheless impressive. Guided by integrity, dedication, sincerity, and objective scientific analysis, “He brought a level of discourse—always civil—to the government that made huge impressions,” Guhin said. “He has a genius for being able to get the most complicated issues across, and to explain them in words that can be easily grasped….”

Robert Mikulak, former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (the intergovernmental organization based in The Hague, with 193 member states, that promotes and verifies adherence to the Chemical Weapons Convention), recalled two of the most famous incidents in which Meselson played an important role as a scientist influencing public policy. In the early 1980s, the U.S. government raised an alarm about the Communist governments of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos using Soviet-supplied toxins, which appeared as a yellow rain, against hill tribes in Laos. “Matt challenged that case, questioning how the samples were collected, how they were analyzed.” Eventually, he published a paper in Science based on analysis of this “yellow rain,” determining that it was caused by pollen in bee feces, deposited by large swarms of the insects.

“About the same time,” Mikulak continued, “he became embroiled in a public debate about a very unusual anthrax outbreak in the city of Sverdlovsk in the Ural Mountains region of the Soviet Union,” which killed 68 people in 1979. “The administration’s view was that this was caused by an aerosol release of anthrax spores from a military facility” that the Soviets were concealing. “Matt, to the contrary, supported the Soviet explanation that…the outbreak that killed 68 people was caused by the intestinal form of anthrax,” which results from eating the meat of diseased cattle.

“To Matt’s credit,” Mikulak said, “he kept pressing for a field investigation, not relying on the official explanations but actually getting to the source to look at samples [and] talk to people. When this became possible in 1992, with the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Meselson, his wife, Jeanne Guillemin ’68, a medical anthropologist, and their Russian escorts “collected samples, interviewed witnesses,” and checked the meteorological conditions around the time of the illness. Clever sleuthing based on the unusual distribution pattern of the disease, and what was known about its transmission, led Meselson and his colleagues to conclude that his own prior explanation was wrong—exactly what a good scientist does on encountering new evidence. The team went on to deduce the exact location of a Soviet biological weapons lab that had accidentally released the pathogen into the nearby community. Prevailing winds set the pattern of infection, and the team was able to prove its hypothesis, published in Science in 1994, to a very high degree of confidence. Mikulak calls it “a classic analysis.” (Guillemin’s gripping book on the subject, Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak, was published in 1999.) 

“The world is a safer place, and we are safer, because of what Matt has accomplished,” continued Mikulak, who stressed “the importance of having scientists involved in public policy and engaged in advising governments….” Addressing the audience of scholars, he urged “each of you to think about how you can use your expertise to effect the public good on issues that affect us all….”

Experimental Beauty, Moral Life

Closing the day’s proceedings, prior to a reception and dinner, Robert Baughman, vice CEO of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, praised Meselson for using his scientific expertise to make “a social, ethical, and moral impact.” Venki Murthy, chair of the department of molecular and cellular biology (MCB), then circled back to Meselson’s scientific contributions. Each year, he said, the department awards the Meselson Prize to an MCB scholar or team for “the most beautiful experiment of the year.”

Jonathan Shaw ’89 is managing editor of this magazine.

* Meselson agreed to hold the paper, but says the primary decisionmaker was Sydney Brenner, “the driving force in the work.” It was Brenner whom Watson contacted.

Read more articles by: Jonathan Shaw

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