October 2013

Q&A with John Exton

John ExtonJohn Exton of Vanderbilt University long has been fascinated by a laboratory run by a husband-wife team. This husband-wife team happens to be Carl and Gerty Cori, both Nobel laureates who received the prize in physiology or medicine in 1947 for their work on glycogen metabolism. Their laboratory, which was active from the 1930s through the 1960s at Washington University in St. Louis, spawned six more Nobel laureates and a host of famous biochemists. Earlier this year, Exton, an associate editor of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, turned his fascination with the Coris into a book called “Crucible of Science” published by Oxford University Press and available through Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the impetus to write this book?
When I was a postdoc and a young faculty member here at Vanderbilt, my research was very close to the research that the Coris did. I was very familiar with their scientific findings. That was No. 1. No. 2, more importantly, was that my two principal mentors here at Vanderbilt were Charles Park and Earl Sutherland. Both were students of the Coris. They were influenced by the Coris, and their influence, in turn, translated to me. The third thing was that this was a fabulous laboratory. Both the Coris got the Nobel Prize, and six people who worked there also got the Nobel Prize. It’s a very unique laboratory that had never been written up. It was astonishing to me that there never had been any book about this fabled laboratory that had influenced American biochemistry so strongly.
Cover of the John Exton book Crucible of Science(The Coris) put biochemistry in a new light. Prior to that, people just worked on amino acids and vitamins. (The Coris) really got into metabolism and enzymes. They weren’t the only ones to do it, but they pushed biochemistry into a new era. It was a new age for biochemistry. That was one of their great contributions.
As I read the book, it was like reading a “Who’s Who” of biochemistry.
Obviously the Nobel laureates are very impressive, but many of the major players in biochemistry worked there as well. It was a cavalcade of fine biochemists who went through that lab.
How did you decide you were going to tackle this book?
Well, I had to get information about the Coris, obviously, so it was a lot of work there. Luckily, many of the people who worked in the lab, including the Coris, did have very good autobiographies, so that was a great help. Without those autobiographies, I probably never would have been able to do it. That was a big factor.
So you had a big stack of reading?
Interesting reading! If it was boring, I never would have done it. These people were great scientists, but they had fabulous, interesting histories and biographies.
Did you spend much time talking to people?
Unfortunately, a lot of them are dead. Two of them died quite recently – Christian de Duve and Bill Daughaday. But their scientific progeny were still alive, and I could still talk to them.
How did you decide what tone to strike with the book?
It’s a scientific history, so I couldn’t ignore the science. But I didn’t want to overload it with science because the general public would throw up their hands in horror. It had to be a combination of science and personal interest elements, which I found very interesting.

Carl and Gerty Cori
Carl and Gerty Cori received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1947 for their work on glycogen metabolism. Their laboratory spawned six more Nobel laureates and many famous biochemists.

Of all the scientists in the book, who resonated with you most?
I would say the Coris. They were just outstanding people. They were brilliant. They were knowledgeable. They had tremendous command of different languages. They had interesting lives before they came to America (from Europe). How they first arrived in America under pretty awful circumstances and then moved on and created this incredible laboratory – I just couldn’t be other than impressed by them. Their creation was unique – a crucible of science.
What do you mean by unique?
They came from Europe and had lived through World War I. They went through medical school together. They decided, when they got through that, (Europe) was a dangerous place and there was a lot of anti-Semitism. They sensed that there was another war coming. They came to America for that reason. Then they rose from this second-rate cancer institute in Buffalo to create this incredible laboratory. They both got the Nobel Prize. Gerty was the first American woman to get a Nobel Prize. That is quite an achievement. They created a laboratory from which six other Nobel laureates emerged. That’s definitely unique. There is no other laboratory in the United States like that.
How did you come up with the title of the book?
It came out of my head. I can’t remember how that came to me. I thought it was a brilliant title. It came as an act of God or something. I can’t tell you exactly where it came from and why it came. But it came. Of course, when it happened, I knew instantly it was right.

Plaque on the South Building
The Coris worked in South Building, which is now designated as a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society. Photo provided by Philip Skroska, Archivist at the Bernard Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine.

Who do you hope will read this book?
Historians of science. I want biochemists to read it. They would understand the biochemistry. Some people have suggested that graduate students read it.
What do you hope people will get from reading this book?
There is a vast history of science that people just don’t know about. It’s a terrible waste. One thing I hope people will get from this book is how to do science. That’s the most powerful thing that the Coris did – they had a very rigorous approach to science. For example, don’t go into a theory with preconceived notions. Let the facts find themselves. Don’t ignore the literature, because when you read the literature, you know what’s already been done, and you don’t want to repeat it! They were great exponents of the scientific method.
Your sense of humor comes through in the book. You obviously had fun.
Oh, my approach to this whole thing was I didn’t care if I made a penny or not. I just loved
doing it.

Tell us your “Cori Number,” and you could win a copy of “Crucible of Science”!

When scientists win Nobel Prizes, their scientific offspring work out how many times removed they are from the laureates. In scientific parlance, it’s known as having a laureate number.
John Exton, who wrote the book about the Cori laboratory called “Crucible of Science,” has a close connection to the Coris. Two of Exton’s mentors at Vanderbilt University, Charles Park and Earl Sutherland, trained with the Coris, which gives them each a Cori Number of 1. Because Exton trained with Sutherland and Park, Exton has a Cori Number of 2.
If you have a scientific connection to Carl and Gerty Cori, let us know what your Cori Number is. The person with the lowest Cori Number will win a copy of “Crucible of Science” to learn more about his or her scientific lineage.
E-mail your Cori Number (and an explanation of how you calculated it) to asbmbtoday@asbmb.org by Oct. 31.

Rajendrani MukhopadhyayRajendrani Mukhopadhyay (rmukhopadhyay@asbmb.org) is the senior science writer and blogger for ASBMB. Follow her on Twitter (www.twitter.com/rajmukhop), and read her ASBMB Today blog, Wild Types.

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