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Four University of California Bioscientists:

Wendell Meredith Stanley (1904-1971)

Crystallization of Viruses


Wendell Stanley joined the Berkeley faculty in 1948 at the peak of his scientific career. He received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1946 for his work on the tobacco mosaic virus, begun in the 1930s and which he crystallized in 1935. The demonstration of the molecular properties of the virus gave impetus to a new research approach in virology: the study of viruses as large molecules. This was a departure from the predominant view of viruses as infectious agents causing disease.
Professor Stanley later in his career at Berkeley.

It was partly to pursue this interest in viruses as biological macromolecules that Stanley left the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research to found the Virus Laboratory on the Berkeley campus and to build a new free-standing Department of Biochemistry that was not beholden to a medical or agricultural school. Stanley's move to the University of California afforded him the opportunity to assemble a group of young scientists practicing the latest physical and chemical techniques for virus studies. Such studies, he believed, would help elucidate mechanisms of reproduction and biosynthesis at the subcellular level. He and his colleagues applied the molecular approach to research on various bacterial, plant, and animal viruses. In 1954, they succeeded in crystallizing polio virus, the first time an animal virus had been obtained in crystal form. 

Although he was not engaged in formal instruction, Stanley promoted the blending of teaching and research in a most fruitful way. However, his success in uniting biochemistry at Berkeley in one department was short-lived. Tensions stemming from personality clashes and divergent scientific interests led to Stanley's resignation as Chairman of Biochemistry in 1953. His group subsequently re-formed as the Department of Virology, and the Department of Biochemistry relocated to what today is known as Barker Hall. In 1964, the virologists formed the core of a newly created Department of Molecular Biology. 

Stanley played a major role in shaping enlightened national and international policy with regard to basic scientific research for the benefit of mankind. During the growth of the National Institutes of Health after World War II, he served continuously as an advisor and spokesman. He aided in the establishment of vigorous fundamental research programs directed toward the conquest of viral diseases and the study of viruses in relation to cancer. 

Biochemistry at Berkeley
As early as 1946, Stanley was suggested as possible chair of a newly created Department of Biochemistry. University President Robert Gordon Sproul began negotiations with him, and even before he began work Stanley had proposed a budget for a virus laboratory, as well as for biochemistry at the medical school and on the Berkeley campus. By December of 1947, Stanley was looking for funding possibilities for a new building. He began his work at Berkeley in July 1948.

Catching a star
The addition of Wendell Stanley to the Berkeley faculty was meant to increase the University's prestige. This goal can be seen in the last sentence of the first paragraph to this summary, "Every effort will be made to develop this combination into the foremost center for biochemical research in the world."

A "grand salary" of $9,600
These letters, two from Stanley and one from Robert G. Sproul, indicate the importance the University placed on hiring Stanley. In addition to the grand salary of $9,600, President Sproul (letter of 1/20/47) offers to let Stanley recommend a salary and position for Dr. C. Arthur Knight, a virologist whom Stanley brought with him from the Rockefeller Institute.

A new virus lab
Stanley Hall, originally called the Biochemistry and Virus Laboratory Building, was completed in 1952, funded completely from state appropriations. Although the Rockefeller Foundation did not contribute to the building as Stanley had hoped, it did contribute funds for equipment.
Stanley wrote, "I have given considerable thought to the Virus Laboratory and have decided that much would be gained by having it in close proximity to the Berkeley department of biochemistry...The mutual stimulation which would result from close proximity would be especially valuable."
Polio research leading to a commercial vaccine

In the early 1950s, even before the new building was completed, part of the work of the Virus Laboratory was devoted to the poliomyelitis virus. In research funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, the polio virus was crystallized in the laboratory in 1954. Lederle Laboratories announced a polio vaccine during the Stanley Hall opening ceremonies in 1952, but it was the Salk vaccine that became widely used a few years later. 

The first crystallization of a plant virus
Stanley achieved the first crystallization of a virus (1935), the basis for his Nobel Prize of 1946. He later remarked on the unique position of viruses at the junction of life and non-life:
"The fact that, with respect to size, the viruses overlapped with the organisms of the biologist at one extreme and with the molecules of the chemist at the other extreme only served to heighten the mystery regarding the nature of viruses. Then too, it became obvious that a sharp line dividing living from non-living things could not be drawn and this fact served to add fuel for discussion of the age-old question of 'What is life?'"

A Nobel laureate
Stanley was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1946 for his work on the tobacco mosaic virus. The photograph shows Stanley with the other chemistry Nobelists of that year, John N. Northrop and James B. Sumner. 

Franklin’s work on the tobacco virus
Rosalind Franklin, the accomplished and maligned colleague of James Watson and Francis Crick, visited Stanley's laboratory several times to contribute from her work with the tobacco mosaic virus and to learn from his. In this exchange of letters, she comments upon her experiments with the virus and the possibility of preparing it for X-ray crystallography work in order to determine its protein structure.

Stanley and Crick exchange compliments
In this exchange of notes between Stanley and Francis Crick in 1962, the latter acknowledges the importance of Stanley’s work in laying the foundation of molecular biology. 

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