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The Free Thinker

A Nobel Prize-winning biologist and a political activist, Salvador Luria founded MIT’s Center for Cancer Research.
August 23, 2011

The full story of MIT biologist Salvador E. Luria’s life spans three countries and two continents. He mentored a lineup of Nobel Prize winners that included James Watson, David Baltimore ‘61, Susumu Tonegawa, and Phillip Sharp, HM ‘96. And his fortunes were altered by ideologies from fascism to McCarthyism to the peace movement. Yet to distill Luria’s role in the scientific triumphs and political turbulence of the 20th century, one need only point to a pair of front-page stories in the New York Times, published within days of each other in October of 1969.

The first story reports Luria’s shared Nobel Prize for pioneering work on bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria)—work he began in the United States early in 1941, shortly after fleeing Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi-occupied France. Congratulatory calls and cables poured in, including one from President Richard Nixon. Three days later, Luria learned from another Times story that ­Nixon’s administration had blacklisted him from advising the NIH on scientific grants, apparently because of his vocal role in mobilizing faculty and public sentiment against the Vietnam War.

The blacklisting did not harm Luria’s scientific work, and he soon turned his attention to another war—the so-called war on cancer. In 1972, Luria led the Institute’s effort to secure a $4.4 million grant from the newly formed National Cancer Institute to start the MIT Center for Cancer Research, which he directed from its opening in 1973 until 1985. He championed the idea of understanding the causes of cancer through molecular biology rather than clinical observation, and MIT received funding even though it did not have a medical school. MIT scientists went on to publish research that electrified the field. And Luria, who had become a U.S. citizen in 1947, continued to speak out about political issues of the day.

“I made up my mind that as a citizen, I would be an active participant in American politics, taking advantage of the democratic opportunities that were not available to me in Italy,” he told Time magazine in 1985, six years before his death. “What scientific achievement I have reached is due to the freedom provided in this wealthy country to all aspects of intellectual enterprise.”

Unlike Watson, who was Luria’s first graduate student at Indiana University (and who went on to unlock the structure of DNA at Cambridge with Francis Crick), Luria has never been the subject of a Hollywood biopic. But his life was not short of drama. Born in Turin in 1912 to a lower-middle-class Jewish family, he studied medicine and then decided he wanted to do research. Race laws barred him from a research fellowship in Italy, so he left for Paris in 1938. He studied viruses at the Pasteur Institute until the Nazi invasion in 1940 spurred him to flee to New York aboard the S.S. Nea Hellas. As he says in his autobiography, he had $52 in cash and one suit, making him better off than many of the other 800 refugees on the ship.

In the United States, Luria went on to conduct virus research that shapes the field to this day. His Nobel-winning work, with Max Delbrük and Alfred Hershey, showed that bacteria develop resistance to bacteriophages through random mutations—the same phenomenon that helps drive evolution in more complex organisms. This led to an explosion of research in bacterial genetics. Luria, who’d joined the MIT faculty in 1959 and was named an Institute Professor in 1970, was also the first to discover the restriction-modification phenomenon, in which bacteria protect themselves by altering the DNA of their phage invaders. This work later led to the discovery of so-called restriction enzymes, which would be used for making recombinant DNA and, ultimately, for genetic engineering. He wrote the first comprehensive textbook on modern virology, and he was among the pioneers who hypothesized that some forms of cancer have viral origins. He also sounded the alarm about the “terrifying power” of modern biology, urging that information gleaned from genetic research be used responsibly.

“Luria was both a founder of the new science of molecular biology … and one of the most respected intellects in academic science,” says Sharp, whom Luria recruited to MIT in 1974. (Now an Institute Professor, Sharp succeeded Luria as leader of the cancer center and was named the Salvador E. Luria Professor of Biology.) At MIT, Luria was a protective mentor, shielding his junior faculty members from unnecessary interruptions so they could focus on their research: upon discovering that a construction project would require an associate professor to move out of his office at a critical juncture before his tenure decision, “he went cursing down the hall with the responsible architect in tow,” Sharp recalls. Tonegawa, who won a Nobel in 1987 for his work on the genetic basis of the immune system, joined the cancer center at Luria’s invitation in 1981; Baltimore, who shared a 1975 Nobel for the discovery of reverse transcriptase, first met Luria in 1959, when he was an undergraduate, and calls him the “godfather” of his career.

Sharp says Luria guided him on the internal politics facing faculty members at research institutions—the pursuit of grants, office space, and tenure, as well as more serious challenges. In 1977, he recalls, another scientist had published an article taking credit “in a back-handed fashion” for discovering that genes were sometimes split into several segments instead of making up one continuous segment within a DNA molecule—something that Sharp had discovered earlier that year, and for which he later won the Nobel Prize. “Salva was upset about this and encouraged me to be proactive in countering the claim,” Sharp says. “He had a wonderful sense of politics, either governmental or academic, and enjoyed it.”

Luria’s involvement in national politics, including his endorsement of Henry Wallace’s Communist Party-supported presidential run on the Progressive ticket in 1948, attracted attention from the FBI. A two-year investigation cleared him of any involvement in Communist activity, but nonetheless, he was denied a passport from 1952 to 1959. In the early 1960s, Luria helped found the Boston Area Faculty Group on Public Issues (BAFGOPI), which initially worked to support nuclear disarmament and educate the public on nuclear weapons testing. As U.S. involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia grew, BAFGOPI ran a provocative series of antiwar “ad-itorials” in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Washington Post—including one that stated simply, “Mr. President: STOP THE BOMBING,” and was signed by 2,000 academics from across the United States.

“He was not afraid to call people up and say, ‘I need to raise $10,000 tonight so we can get an ad in the New York Times tomorrow that opposes the bombing of Cambodia,’” Baltimore recalls.

Outside the scientific and political fray, Luria enjoyed poetry and literature. His autobiography is sprinkled with quotations from the likes of T. S. Eliot and William Blake, and for five years he and his wife, Zella, a psychologist, ran an informal literature seminar for MIT biology graduate students in their home, studying works by Dante, Voltaire, and Kafka and the Bhagavad Gita. Luria later hosted a similar seminar with biology professor Frank Solomon. Hong Ma, PhD ‘88, now a professor at Fudan and Penn State universities, reflects that in his native China, “literary discussions focused on understanding the opinions of experts.” When he took part in the workshop with Luria and Solomon, he found it eye-opening that “everyone can comment on the author or the work, without being criticized as being ‘wrong.’”

Luria also took up sculpting at 50, though he acknowledged that a perfectionist streak kept him from pursuing it past his successful first efforts. He claimed to have watched television only once in his life—to see a program featuring a panel of eight American socialists. All the while, he battled depression, a struggle that he wrote candidly about in his 1984 autobiography. “That … was the first time I became aware that he took lithium for depression for most of the later part of his life,” Sharp says. “He was one of the most spontaneous people I knew. When asked about it, he said that depression had almost paralyzed him before this treatment.”

Baltimore says that his mentor was truly a humanist: “That’s what drove him, really, a sense of what’s right and wrong and human need.” And from the final words of his autobiography, it seems that Luria would concur: “The story of one’s life path acquires humane significance from the contacts with other human beings. Dante’s allegory, seeking insight and understanding in the words of the dwellers of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, is also an allegory of life deeply shared. Even as one approaches the end of the journey, one hopes, like Dante, for one final stretch of meaningful toil.”

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