March 2010

Retrospective: Paul C. Zamecnik (1912 – 2009)

In some of our conversations, he reflected on the times after he discovered tRNA and lamented that he probably should not have taken time off in the early 1960s for a sabbatical with Sir Alexander Todd in Cambridge. When he returned to Boston, he found that the scientific floodgates had been opened by many others, including Marshall W. Nirenberg, Heinrich Matthaei, Robert W. Holley and Har Gobind Khorana. He told me, “I felt as if I was left standing on Mont-Saint-Michel while the incoming tide roared past me.”
 
I visited with him frequently in his final days and hours. Even as the curtain was falling, his utterings included phrases such as “Shine-Delgarno sequences” and “ribosome-binding sites.” Paul Zamecnik was a remarkably kind, generous, gracious and humble person whose greatest pleasure was scientific discovery.

Kurt J. Isselbacher
Distinguished Mallinckrodt professor of medicine
Harvard Medical School

***

The Massachusetts General Hospital found room for Paul Zamecnik for more than 20 years in the ’60s and ’70s. In an enclave in a research building, Paul and his group did their diligent work on cell-free protein synthesis, on the ribosome and transfer RNA, and on other major insights of the early molecular era. Although their laboratories were in a nonclinical area, the scientists could only reach it by passing through the Bulfinch Building, the heart and home of the medical service. This guaranteed interaction and consultation between true basic scientists and the clinicians trying to cope with cancer and similarly poorly understood disorders, and mutual enlightenment was inevitable. The geographical propinquity correlated with Walter Bauer’s design of keeping basic scientists and clinicians working together. And it succeeded because of Zamecnik’s medical training, his prior clinical experience in a cancer hospital, his scientific brilliance and his approachability.

Daniel D. Federman
Carl W. Walter distinguished professor of medicine
Harvard Medical School

Arthur B. Pardee (arthur_pardee@dfci.harvard.edu) is a professor emeritus of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard University.


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