(Image courtesy of the Pasteur Foundation)
As of February 2010, one-hundred years have passed since the birth of renowned molecular biologist, Jacques Lucien Monod.
Monod was born in Paris on February 9, 1910. At the age of seven, he and his family moved to Cannes, France where he eventually attended college. After receiving his baccalauréat in 1928, Monod moved back to Paris to study general chemistry and biology, as well as zoology and geology. He received his Ph.D. from the Sorbonne in late 1940, and continued his research in occupied France throughout World War II. During the German occupation, Monod joined an armed communist-led resistance group, the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans. He served as an executive officer and was mostly responsible for organization and information.
Of his early life, historian and author Horace Freeland Judson writes
The Monods were one of the noted clans of the professional class of France, far-flung, close-knit, sober, devout, ambitious – and Protestants, exiles for a century. Coming from that family, his father was a painter. His mother was American. Monod was a product of the French academic system; he was dissatisfied with it from the time he first came to the Sorbonne in 1928 to the days of riot and near revolution in Paris in May of 1968, when he publicly crossed the barricades to be on the students’ side.
Later in his career, Monod authored and co-authored well over one-hundred scientific articles before becoming director of the Institut Pasteur in 1971.
Certain of the scientific concepts developed by Monod are now central to modern biology. Among these, Monod is perhaps most widely recognized for his work with enzyme theory and synthesis, largely undertaken in collaboration with François Jacob. The operon model that the tandem developed, which addresses the regulation of gene expression, was hailed by Institut Pasteur researcher Agnes Ullman as a “forerunner of the biotechnological revolution.” Monod is also known for conceptualizing the theory of allostery, an extremely important development for the study of bacterial regulatory mechanisms.
Aside from his impressive assemblage of academic articles, Monod is remembered for a book he wrote titled Chance and Necessity. The book describes, in layman’s terms, the chief findings of molecular biology up to the time of its publication in 1970. The volume also attempts to show that certain consequences for belief systems and ethical behavior follow from the biological framework advanced in the book. The text was very popular, but among his fellow scientists and scholars, proved also to be very controversial.
In 1965 Monod was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine, to be shared with two other men from the Institut Pasteur, François Jacob and André Lwoff. The researchers were recognized for “their discoveries concerning genetic control of enzyme and virus synthesis.” Not long thereafter, Monod was elected as chair of the Collège de France, an honorary institution unique to France.
(Image courtesy of the Nobel Foundation)
Though the two men led vastly different lives, many similarities can be found between Linus Pauling and Jacques Monod. Both men initiated extensive work in the field of biology and biochemistry. Both were awarded a Nobel Prize and appeared often in numerous professional journals and books of their own authoring. The two men also maintained a notable appreciation for the outdoors, were very successful in their fields and were outspoken participants in a number of controversies in and outside of their disciplines.
Monod visited the California Institute of Technology in 1936, nearly five years after Linus Pauling had been made a full professor of Chemistry. Monod had received a Rockefeller fellowship to study genetics at Caltech, around the time when Pauling was shifting more of his attention towards the field of biology. Though they were in close proximity over the summer of Monod’s visit, the two initiated very little in the form of written contact.
Later on, Monod and Pauling did correspond, though not as much as one might expect considering their statures within the scientific community. Monod first contacted Pauling to share a letter that he wrote to the editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, protesting the trial and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for their alleged conspiracy with the former Soviet Union (a matter of great concern to Pauling as well). A second letter came on November 8, 1954 to congratulate Pauling for his Nobel Chemistry Prize. The last recorded exchange between the two was an inquiry by Monod concerning a graduate student’s application that had listed Pauling as a reference.
Upon closer inspection however, it appears that the two may have known each other better than their sparse correspondence suggests. While congratulating him for his Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Monod suggested that Pauling stop by his home in France for dinner during his acceptance trip to Europe. Likewise, a calling card for Mr. & Mme. Jacques Monod can be found among receipts from Pauling’s visit to Paris in 1957. By 1959 the two were on a first name basis, and Monod’s name and work can be found referenced a number of times in Pauling’s speeches and manuscripts.
If the two shared nothing else, it was a persona or way of doing things. Horace Judson, who knew both men and their works very well, wrote of Monod
His style was as quintessentially French as Linus Pauling’s was American. He was a multiple outsider.
In early 1976, after serving as director of the Institut Pasteur for nearly five years, Monod was diagnosed with leukemia. He carried on as director of the Institut throughout a series of burdensome treatments, but passed away on May 31 from related complications. Reportedly, his last words were Je cherche à comprendre – “I am trying to understand.”