I have always been fascinated by the untold narrative behind the precise dryness of scientific papers. So much is unsaid: the surges of triumph, the stupid mistakes, the bitter failures that litter the road to any accepted manuscript. Chronology is often tweaked, too: one of the few falsehoods formally permitted in scientific papers is the “Next, we decided to…” transition conceit that often describes as sequential those activities that were anything but, in real life.
So I was very excited when I became involved in ‘Strange Encounters’, a series of essays to be aired on BBC Radio 3 which ask scientists to describe a famous eureka moment in their field as if they were actually in the room. The producer was looking for a dramatic, novelistic style, and he was keen to avoid all the usual clichés – Watson and Crick’s helix, say, or Fleming’s Petri plate.
After some discussion, I was given the green light to imagine a critical day in the life of Peyton Rous. Working in the Rockefeller, Rous reported the first example of an RNA tumor virus in 1911 and inadvertently ushered in the era of modern cancer genetics. There wasn’t a lot on the web aside from his Nobel Prize biography, so I realized I was going to have to try to imagine his big moment through the distorted, minimalist lens of his seminal papers. And my deadline – 2000 words for a 15-minute broadcast – was in four days!
Kudos to J Ex Med for having digitized all of their back content; the two key papers, A transmissible avian neoplasm and A sarcoma of the fowl transmissible by an agent separable from the tumor cells, were available in pdf. I wasn’t, to be honest, expecting to learn very much about what had really happened from these, though. From most papers, you can’t even tell what year a discovery was actually made, let alone what time of year, or day. Would it be snowing outside of Peyton’s lab window, or a blazing summer day?
But fortunately, I discovered that they just don’t write ‘em like they used to. For good old Peyton had lavished a world of attention into the minute details of his discovery, which is visually arresting and reads at times like a diary:
OCT. 1, 1909. The fowl bearing the growth is a strong, young hen. The mass is situated on the right breast…It is irregularly spherical in shape, firm, smooth, well-defined, and projects sharply from the breast contour.
He didn’t attempt to gloss over the less admirable moments:
DEC. 12. 1909. Following operation on the nodule it grew rapidly and to-day measured 5.3 by 4 by 3.5 centimeters, when it was again cut into…Hemorrhage was so profuse…that the fowl was killed.
And the paper, unlike today’s, is jam-packed with negative results:
JAN. 27, 1910. The chickens were reinoculated, this time into the left breast, with material from second generation B.
MAY, 1910. All are still without signs of tumor.
And plenty of poetic drama, too:
Soon the whole of the inoculated breast is occupied by a bulging, rounded, firm growth (figure 5); and the host rapidly emaciates, becomes cold, somnolent, and dies.
Although Rous’s penchant for applying caveats sounds thoroughly modern:
The first tendency will be to regard the self-perpetuating agent active in this sarcoma of the fowl as a minute parasitic organism. Analogy with several infectious diseases of man…gives support to this view of the findings, and at present work is being directed to its experimental verification. But an agency of another sort is not out of the question. … For the moment we have not adopted either hypothesis.
And sometimes, the old-fashioned language made me laugh. To my delight, I discovered that scientists in Rous’s day did not ‘centrifuge’ samples, but rather ‘centrifugalized’ them – which sounds rather like something George W. Bush might have said.
I didn’t even have to imagine how his hens looked, because he’d supplied a large photograph of his barred Plymouth Rock subjects (though I did consult Henry about the general behavior of chickens). But of course, I did have to invent nearly everything else. For the purposes of drama, I made him a closer friend to his bacteriologist colleague Oswald Avery than he may actually have been in real life. The crucial moment I wanted to describe was not diarized in the second paper, so I guessed that it might have been May, the year before publication. I had to flesh out his personality, his dreams, his ambitions and his actions from my own mind, and I know the result cannot be even close to accurate. I also experienced a revelation that left a tinge of melancholy, still remaining: it is remarkable how thoroughly even important details are lost once someone dies. For example, I wanted him to think about his girlfriend at one point, but though I knew the name of his eventual wife, history remains silent on when they met – and even when they married. And this is a person who won the Nobel – what hope for the rest of us to leave behind many traces?
You can hear me tell the whole story of Peyton Rous’s big moment with destiny as he encounters Rous Sarcoma Virus – it’s this coming Wednesday, 24 June on BBC Radio 3 at 23:00. (And tune in every night this week, same time and channel, for four other tales across a spectrum of scientific discoveries.)