Jan A. Witkowski: The Road to Discovery

Road to Discovery cover

Road to Discovery cover


Jan A. Witkowski
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, October 31, 2015, $29
ISBN-10: 1621821080
ISBN-13: 9781621821083

Witkowski reports:

It comes as a surprise to many that Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, one of the world’s leading research institutes, was founded in 1890 as a summer school for teachers of biology. As this is its 125th anniversary, it was decided that an account was needed of its origin and development. I took on the job.

Jan Witkowski

Jan Witkowski

Institutional history is perhaps the most parochial form of history; it also is the history most likely to fail. On the one hand, those who know the institution are likely to find any history superficial, while on the other, those unfamiliar with the institute will complain that the author is obsessed with minutiae. I cannot judge whether I succeeded in the balance between superficiality and obsessiveness, but I hope so.

Histories that rely heavily on, for example, minutes of committees run the risk of reading like the minutes themselves — turgid and anodyne. Fortunately, the laboratory has played an important role in the development of molecular biology, and there were many interesting sources beyond those of the laboratory itself.

And, finally, an anniversary is not sufficient justification for writing a history — the institution has to be worth writing about. I think CSHL qualifies. In addition to the wider role the laboratory has played in modern biology, its scientists have made interesting discoveries, and it has been involved in controversial research.

An unpublished history of CSHL was written by Bentley Glass and subsequently amended and brought up to the 1990s by Nathan Comfort. This helped me generate a framework for the book, highlighting topics to leave out, and suggesting new ones to include.

The book grew to be much bigger than I had anticipated. CSHL Press has done an excellent job in producing a beautiful book with over 300 illustrations. I am fortunate to work at an institution that, while at the forefront of research in cancer, neuroscience, plant science, and genomics, values its past.

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March 9, 2016

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