Science, for the People

Having entered retirement, Jonathan Beckwith reflects on a life of discovery and social action

Photo by Rick Groleau

In the fall of 1969, for the first time, a group of researchers isolated a single gene from a living organism, the bacterium E. coli. The accomplishment, a mere 25 years after the discovery of DNA, was revolutionary. Scientists now had the tools to manipulate genes and improve upon models of life. The fields of biotechnology and bioengineering were born.  

Leading the group was Jonathan Beckwith, who, along with his Harvard colleague, biologist James Shapiro, called a press conference not to promote the technology, but rather to warn against its mishandling. In a time of political upheaval marked by the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, Beckwith and Shapiro voiced their ethical concerns over the potential misuse of their science.

“We didn’t want people running away with the idea of being able to manipulate genes,” Beckwith said. “We were worried about the technology being used for profiling people or intervening in the human genome.”

The following year, Beckwith won the Eli Lilly and Company-Elanco Research Award and announced he would donate the $1,000 prize to the Black Panther free health clinic in Boston as well as to a defense fund for 13 imprisoned Black Panther Party members.

"Unfortunately in this society, those who make the decisions about awards equate serving 'society' with serving the interests of that small number of people who run our government and our industries,” he told the Harvard Crimson. “In a just society, those who receive the awards should be those who are contributing in a meaningful way to the welfare of all people."

Beckwith, then 33, had just been appointed professor of microbiology at Harvard Medical School. Forty-four years later, now an HMS emeritus, the quiet Beckwith belies the spirited rebel he was in the ’60s and ’70s.

Empty bottles of Calvados line the tops of the cabinets and tabletops of his office. Books, journals and reference manuals cover the rest of the shelf space—back issues of Nature and microbiology textbooks alongside The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Mapping Fate, and Society’s Choices. A whiteboard bears drawings of the inside of bacterial cells, while a window offers a view of the steely blue glass windows of other Harvard laboratory buildings.

His electric blue Cannondale Silk path 500 bike rests against the window, with a change of clothes hanging behind the door and two helmets on his desk. Beckwith comes from a long line of bikers. His grandfather opened the first bike store, Hub Cycles, in Boston in the late 1890s, and his father left college to continue the family business. Beckwith, his two sons, Ben and Anthony, and wife, Barbara, a writer, are also avid bikers. A native of Newton, Massachusetts, Beckwith cycles to the Longwood area every day from his Cambridge residence.

As one enters the two-family house that he and his wife Barbara own, a broad blue paint stripe runs along the entryway stairs leading up to their second-floor apartment. Halfway up the stairs, from this blue band emerges a fist, about four feet tall, a daunting signal of the politics of the house. Not a symbol of anarchy, Beckwith insists, but resistance.

“It was originally red,” said Beckwith. “When it needed a paint fix, we just painted it blue.”

Inside, an old record player, a sound system, several records, mixtapes and CDs decorate an entire wall in the living room. On the opposite wall is a bookshelf filled with yellowing French books. Spots of red pop up everywhere, from the African-print rug to the bulb within a side table’s lamp. Global artifacts, from wire sculptures to wooden masks, decorate the rooms of the house. The only furniture in the dining room area is an upright wooden piano, illuminated by a small disco ball.

Pictures of Wire Canyon in Utah hang on the walls. “He may not seem so, but he is very adventurous on our hiking trips,” says Barbara Beckwith.

As much of a risk-taker and non-traditionalist as Beckwith may seem, he has several constants in his life. He has been married to Barbara for over 50 years, they have shared the same apartment for nearly 50 years and Beckwith has been at his current job for equally long.

As a result of this long career, Beckwith has over 300 scientific publications to his credit, and 80 more “science and society” papers. His research papers are largely focused on disulfide bond formation, lac operon function and other structural qualities of E. coli. The isolation of the lac z gene provided a means for other researchers to be able to strip single genes from massive genome sequences. I guess HIV-AIDS research has benefited from recombinant DNA technology, which was the technique that superseded ours,” Beckwith modestly concedes when asked to consider the implications of his gene isolation work.

As a young man, Beckwith was unsure about being a scientist. “I thought scientists were boring,” writes Beckwith in his memoir, “but I enjoyed doing science. At the same time, I loved reading French literature and enjoyed the company of my peers who were artists.”

Committing to a career in the sciences wasn’t easy. While he enjoyed the humanities, he had a flair for science. “I was good at what I did—efficient and creative, so I kept giving science a try.” He insists it was science that chose him: He expected at every stage of his career to not get into graduate school or receive a particular fellowship, but when opportunities kept opening up, he kept pursuing them.

“I knew upon entering graduate school at Harvard that I did not like chemistry,” said Beckwith, who had taken little biology as a Harvard undergraduate, and none in high school. But a fellow graduate student insisted that he speak with Lowell Hager, then an assistant professor at Harvard, about new possibilities in the world of biology. Somewhere between being fascinated by Hager’s unusual ping-pong practicing in his office and the prospect of entering the field that would eventually be known as molecular biology, Beckwith was hooked.

The newness of genetics also attracted Beckwith. He admired the work of microbiologists at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, and in the lab of François Jacob, learned the basics of genetics that would sustain his career.

The cultural climate in Paris nurtured his sociopolitical views, especially the role of science and scientists. “I was really taken by the degree to which the French scientists talked about politics, unlike what I had experienced in labs in the United States.”

Once he had established himself as a microbiologist, he brought back his European politics and views on science, speaking out against controversial studies conducted at Harvard. He was an early member of Science for the People, along with Harvard colleagues Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould. The group met to discuss contemporary issues in science and acted as a task force against the misuse of science.

The most famous case was the controversy surrounding the supposed XYY syndrome. In an era when evolutionary psychology, sociobiology and behavioral genetics were first being studied, scientists studied the XYY condition in males in the hope of identifying connections between having an extra Y chromosome and social behavior. The connection being widely reported, and widely contested, was that males with the XYY condition were prone to being criminals.

“It was just bad science,” says Beckwith, shaking his head and sighing. “They were testing newborns for this condition and it was unacceptable.”

Beckwith co-authored an article with MIT biologist Jonathan King in The New Scientist, in which they cited erroneous methods and the mistake of equating correlation with causation. They pointed out that the study also neglected the procedures of informed consent.

During the ’70s, and ’80s, Beckwith got into disputes with other members of the Harvard community who were studying sociobiology, psychology and genetics. Beckwith recalls being particularly appalled by the work of biologist E.O. Wilson and psychologist Richard Herrnstein.

Beckwith felt that Wilson provided genetic and evolutionary justifications for such complex concepts as racism as well as the dominance of men over women. “But there were no studies done at the time that actually provided evidence for these proposed genetic differences between human males and females,” said Beckwith. “Translating animal studies to humans is simply wrong.”

Beckwith also vehemently opposed the ideas presented in Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve. Herrnstein, a psychologist at Harvard, co-authored the book on intelligence in society with Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute. Its main argument was that intelligence test scores among Americans reflected genetic capabilities and were a good predictor of socioeconomic outcomes, including financial success, chance of unwanted pregnancy, and other such lifestyle factors.

Beckwith started to feel pressure from his colleagues to reconsider his views, or at least not be vocal about them. In the late ’70s, a group of faculty took their grievances against Beckwith to the dean of Harvard Medical School, asking for the administration to admonish Beckwith.

While no formal action was taken, Beckwith says, “The vote against me was so strong that I think they were hoping that would be enough of a message for me to leave on my own.”

But Beckwith has not reconsidered his views. Since 1989, he has taught a class at Harvard titled “Social Issues in Biology.” The aim is to get budding scientists and doctors to explore the world outside science, to be more open to communicating their work to members of the public, and most important, to think about the consequences of their work. Beckwith encourages the discussion of such topics as the limits of stem cell research, the promise of personalized medicine as well as the role of women in science.

Today, Beckwith is still part of a group that addresses many of the same issues—Genetics and Society Working Group. They meet every two weeks, planning participation in local science festivals and discussing contemporary scientific papers in the field of genetics.

In Beckwith’s own lab, a water bath rattles loudly, shaking beakers and aerating the bacterial culture growing within. Beckwith walks around slowly, trying to make sense of the different machines available for genomic analysis but frankly admitting that he doesn’t really know the technology well. “I’m glad we have all this available,” he says, “but sometimes it means people run away with ideas just because there is technology available to do it. The reason and scientific basis for conducting some experiments is lost.”

Beckwith is currently in the process of closing down his lab, transferring projects to postdoc students in his lab and focusing instead on his “Social Issues in Biology” course as well as the Genetics and Society Working Group. And an annual dance party.

Beckwith’s 47th Annual Dance Party featured an interesting cocktail of guests, many of whom claimed to have been attending these parties since the ’60s. Many more expressed their disappointment that the number of parties that the Beckwiths hosted had dwindled down to merely one a year. Nearly 50 people, postdocs, journalists, fellow Science for the People members and college friends alike, swarmed the small apartment, sipping Pinot Noir and Merlot and eating brie and pistachios. Beckwith pulled up a chair to flick the disco ball, pointed a red spotlight from a nearby table onto the ball and turned on the switch. Red sparkling dots flooded the dining area and techno music blared from a pair of three-foot speakers at the entrance to the dance floor.

Beckwith, dressed in a plum shirt and black jeans, stepped onto the floor slowly shuffling his feet and swaying to the rhythm, unaware of amused onlookers.

“Everybody danced in the ’60s,” laughs Beckwith, “and we have just continued that tradition.”

And while he might have more time to party and pursue his interests, Beckwith is concerned for the future of science. “My generation was incredibly privileged to have money flowing into the sciences, especially basic sciences,” reflected Beckwith.

He says that many colleagues and collaborators are pushing him to keep his lab going, but he has other plans. Like many retirees, he wants to spend time with his family, traveling, biking and writing “anything but grants.”