Not quite a book prize

It is the season for scientific prizes – this month already we have had the K. J. Zülch Prize, the Perkin medal, the Keio medical science prize, the Balzan prizes, the Golden Goose awards and the Lasker prizes. Science writing honours are underway too – the Max Perutz essay prize was awarded this week, with the Wellcome science writing prize due next week and the Wellcome science book prize next month.

I was interested to see that one of this year’s Lasker prizewinners was Tom Maniatis, and that the citation explicitly mentions his hugely influential book Molecular Cloning.

Maniatis created the quintessential Molecular Cloning manual—based on his own pioneering work—and thus spread revolutionary technologies into a multitude of laboratories across the world.

Of course this is a different kind of writing from that recognised by the award of essay or book prizes.  Writing a laboratory manual is more like writing a scientific paper than writing a textbook or popular science book, I suspect. It is a task requiring clarity and distillation rather than creative inspiration. Still, a book is a book, and it is good to see a major science prize being awarded at least in part for the effort put into the creation of a book.  The Lasker citation relates the history of the book’s creation:

In 1979, James Watson asked Maniatis to bring his techniques to the community by teaching a course at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory—and Maniatis generously agreed. Its tremendous success spurred Maniatis and postdoctoral fellow Edward Fritsch to turn the course manual into a book. With Joseph Sambrook, they did so. … Their Molecular Cloning manual, first published in 1982, sold 62,000 copies and that number jumped to 95,000 in the second edition.

David Crotty a wrote nice appreciation of the influence of Maniatis (as the book became known) on the 25th anniversary of its publication, in 2007:

It opened a door for many researchers into the world of recombinant DNA technology and played a significant role in spreading these approaches through the scientific community.

He mentions a couple of early reviews of the work:

George McCorkle happily proclaims in American Scientist, “In our laboratory, mirabile dictu, the procedures in this manual nearly always work.”  In TIBS, Hugh Pelham went so far as to title his TIBS review “Cloning Without Tears.”

Crotty also refers to the book’s nickname – “The Bible“, and reports that this was used as far back as 1984, just two years after the book was first published. Achieving that kind of classic status in just two years is not bad going.

As the book went through successive editions the author order was changed to put Joe Sambrook as first author, reflecting the extent of his input. Recently the book has gone into a fourth edition, with Michael Green as the first-named author and Sambrook as co-author. I daresay people will still refer to it as Maniatis though.

I recently ordered a copy and am not looking forward to cataloguing it – all those names and nicknames and past authors make it a bit of a nightmare.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we slip from print through to electronic information resources.
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2 Responses to Not quite a book prize

  1. Ah, Maniatis. I believe the version I used was Maniatis, Sambrook and Fritsch – blue, and possibly in three volumes(?).

    I’m glad to hear that it still exists as an honest-to-goodness paper book, and hasn’t been completely supplanted by Current Protocols online.

  2. Frank says:

    Richard – it definitely does exist as a paper book – my copy arrived this morning. The online version is a bit pricey so I have not subscribed to it, though that would have been my preference.