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George Beadle, An Uncommon Farmer: The Emergence of Genetics in the 20th Century

Subject Area(s):  GeneticsGeneral Interest TitlesAutobiography/BiographyHistory of Science

By Paul Berg, Stanford University School of Medicine; Maxine Singer, Carnegie Institution of Washington

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© 2005 • 383 pp., illus., index
Paperback • $21 10.50
ISBN  978-087969763-1
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George Beadle was a towering scientific figure whose work from the 1930s to 1960 marked the transition from classical genetics to the molecular era. Among other distinctions, he made the pivotal, Nobel Prize–winning discovery with Edward Tatum that the role of genes is to specify proteins. From 1946 to 1960 he led the Caltech Biology Division, rebuilding it to a powerhouse in molecular biology, and afterwards became a successful President of the University of Chicago. This is the first biography of a giant of genetics, written by two of the field's most distinguished contributors, Paul Berg and Maxine Singer.


Chapter 1. An Uncommon Farmer
Chapter 2. Agricultural College at Lincoln
Chapter 3. Genetics at the Quarter Century
Chapter 4. The Corn Cooperation
Chapter 5. The Fly Group
Chapter 6. From Corn to Flies
Chapter 7. Three–eyed Flies
Chapter 8. Becoming a Professor
Chapter 9. From Flies to Molds
Chapter 10. One Gene–One Protein
Chapter 11. Confronting the Skeptics
Chapter 12. In Morgan's Footsteps
Chapter 13. Postwar Science and Politics
Chapter 14. Genetics and the Nuclear Age
Chapter 15. Oxford and the Nobel Prize
Chapter 16. Becoming a University President
Chapter 17. Restoring a University's Eminence
Chapter 18. The Corn Wars


review:  “Berg (a Nobel laureate biochemist at Stanford University) and Singer (a former president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington), are thoroughly acquainted with Beadle's work and its place in the history of genetics. Not only do they tell us a lot, both scientific and personal, about Beadle, but they set the stage by describing his associates and their work. The authors have done their homework, reading the old literature and conducting hours of interviews. The result is a full, accurate, authoritative, and balanced biography. And their writing is splendid as well. . . . One of the delights of Berg and Singer's informative biography is their vivid portrayal of the real Beadle.”

review:  “The book tells us in detail about Beadle's two marriages, the salaries he earned (but not their equivalent values today), his journeys by ship and by train, and the fact that he succumbed to Alzheimer's disease. There is plenty here for everyone. Those interested in the history of genetics will want to read the whole book, but today's students would benefit from just a few chapters.”

review:  “Berg and Singer's biography of Beadle is authoritative and complete, in that it covers in considerable detail both scientific and personal aspects of the life of this remarkable (in my view, almost uniquely appealing) biologist–administrator.”
      —Nature Genetics

review:  “. . . a meticulously investigated, historically contextualized and finely written biography of one of the central figures of 20th century genetics.”
      —American Scientist

review:  “Excellent biographies of scientists are rare. Those written by nonscientists often omit the major scientific work and focus on the personality of the scientist and the importance of their work. Those biographies written by scientists often bury readers in technical details that only specialists can appreciate, and all too often the personality of the scientist is missing. Fortunately, both Paul Berg and Maxine Singer have avoided these two pitfalls. Their biography of George Wells Beadle is a magnificent effort of good writing, good insights, and a comprehensive account of the life and work of one of the greatest geneticists of the 20th century....For those who enjoy learning how great ideas arise and get transformed, who want to see how the science of one's time constrains the interpretations, and how highly motivated and talented investigators succeed in solving problems, this book will be richly rewarding.”
      —The Quarterly Review of Biology

review:  “Paul Berg and Maxine Singer, both distinguished senior scientists, aim to restore [Beadle] to life in part to acquaint younger scientists with their forebears, not only Beadle but also his generation of geneticists. They have succeeded handsomely in this deeply researched and lucidly written biography, a work that historians as well as scientists will find informative and compelling....

Berg and Singer's Beadle is deeply and broadly researched, exploiting several rich manuscript sources, including the Beadle Papers at Caltech and the records of the Rockefeller Foundation (from which Beadle long received support). It also draws on original scientific papers, interviews, memoirs, and the relevant secondary literature in the history of classical and molecular genetics. Although it lacks a bibliography, its sources are readily obtained form the extensive notes. It is bound to stand as the definitive biography of its subject.”
      —Journal of the History of Biology