The 2,344th Meeting of the Society

March 20, 2015 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

Brave Genius

A Scientist’s Journey from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize

Sean Carroll

Wilson Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics
University of Wisconsin
Vice President, Science Education, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Sponsored by PSW Member Tim Thomas

About the Lecture

This lecture will chronicle the adventures of Jacques Monod, a co-founder of molecular biology, from the dark years of the German occupation of Paris to the heights of the Nobel Prize, his friendship with the great writer Albert Camus, and his emergence as a public figure and leading voice of science. One of the key ideas that Monod championed was the role of chance in the course of life on Earth. Although still not widely appreciated – four decades later – we now know much more than Monod might have imagined about the ubiquitous role of chance in evolution, from the molecular scale to the planetary.

About the Speaker

SEAN CARROLL is Wilson Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the University of Wisconsin and Vice President for Science Education of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), where he is also the architect of HHMI’s science filmmaking initiative. His research has centered on the genes that control animal body patterns and play major roles in the evolution of animal diversity. His work has revealed that changes in how these genes are regulated, rather than in the genes themselves, are responsible for much of the physical diversity in the animal kingdom. Sean earned his BS from Washington University in St. Louis and his PhD from Tufts University. He is an author of more than 125 scientific publications. He is also the author of several books for wider audiences, including Brave Genius: A Scientist, A Philosopher and their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize; Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species; The Making of the Fittest; and Endless Forms Most Beautiful. He wrote the column “Remarkable Creatures” that appeared regularly in the New York Times Science Times. He has appeared frequently on radio and television to discuss science, and has appeared in and served executive producer for over a dozen science films. He also was scientific consulting producer for a two hour NOVA special, based on two of his books, celebrating the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species. Sean works tirelessly for science education and for bringing science to life for the public, especially the young.


President Larry Millstein called the 2344th meeting of the Society to order on March 20, 2015 at 8:01 pm. He announced the order of business and welcomed new members to the Society. The President presented a summery of the 19th meeting of the Society held on January 27, 1872. President Millstein then introduced the speaker for the evening, Sean Carroll of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of Wisconsin. His lecture was entitled “Brave Genius: A Scientist’s Journey from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize.”

Dr. Carroll began his lecture by introducing the Nobel Laureate, Jacques Monod , who believed that science changes how we see our place in the universe. The first such scientific idea was Darwin’s theory of evolution, with the implication that species are not created by divine processes. The second such idea was the role of chance in biology. This was Monod’s scientific contribution.

Chance also epitomized Monod’s own biography. Monod initially struggled to find his scientific direction, but in 1936 he worked with Morgan’s “Drosophilia” group at CalTech. That was the spark which kindled his interest in genetics.

By the fall of 1939, Monod had returned to Paris where he was working on his doctorate. He had married and become a father of twins. He joined the French army’s communication corps and was stationed in Versailles. On May 10, 1940, Germany invaded France. Monod’s family was unable to escape, and the occupation brought many hardships. A complicating factor for the family was that his wife Odette was Jewish. Under the anti-Jewish laws of occupied Paris, Monod had to register as the husband of a Jew.

During this period, Monod’s scientific work continued. He noticed that the exponential growth curve of bacteria populations in some types of sugar mixes would show a small hump in the curve. Monod called this diauxic growth. This work would lead to Monod’s Nobel prize 35 years later.

But that work came very close to never happening. Monod was implicated in a scheme to distribute an anti-Nazi newsletter for a friend. By a stroke of luck (or chance!), however, no copies of the newsletter had yet reached him for distribution. Monod’s friend was prosecuted and executed in February 1942. The Nazi restrictions on Jews continued, culminating in the infamous yellow stars and deportations. Odette and the twins fled to Vichy France, with a forged identity for Odette.

In 1943 Monod joined the communist-led resistance group FTP. He volunteered for a dangerous mission to sneak into Switzerland to convince the Allies’ representatives to equip the resistance. Monod’s student Geneviève Noufflard became Monod liaison agent. This was a very risky job, with dozens of daily clandestine meetings around Paris, gathering intelligence and passing orders. Monod himself led a double life: lab researcher and resistance officer. By 1944, he was an operations branch commandant with country-wide responsibilities. Dr. Carroll showed some of the orders, directives, and plans by Monod , who used the nom de guerre “Malivert.” Later, he helped direct the fight on the barricades during the liberation of Paris.

After the liberation, Monod was browsing in an American bookmobile. There, by chance, he found an issue of Genetics with an article on the spontaneous appearance of bacterial mutations.

After the war, with Alice Audureau, he demonstrated that E. coli strains which could not metabolize lactose could, by mutation, give rise to strains which could metabolize lactose. Thus, he showed the genetic origins of lactose metabolism. In 1945 Monod joined the Pasteur Institute.

In 1948, horrified about Lysenko’s proposed "reforms" to Soviet biology, Monod wrote in the newspaper Combat against Lysenkoism. This was outside of the Communist party line, and cost Monod the friendship of Sartre and others, but made Monod new friends. The most significant was Albert Camus, who was aligned with the French left, but was adamantly against Stalin. In his writings, Camus criticized Stalinism and Lysenkoism, taking fragments from Monod’s writings on biology. This contempt for Stalinism was justified in 1956, with the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising. In 1958 Monod met Hungarian biochemist and revolutionist Agnes Ullmann, who had sought him out because of the Combat article. As Monod was doing his Nobel-prize winning work, he also smuggled her and her husband out of Hungary using resistance techniques.

Monod also met François Jacob at the Pasteur Institute. Studying the diauxic curve, they found that enzymes to metabolize certain sugars were induced in the sugar’s presence. They worked out the mechanism of a “genetic switch” for enzyme production, which won them the Nobel Prize in 1965. His war background made Monod very popular as a go-to person on scientific issues. When Camus died in 1960, Monod took his position in French intellectual life. For instance, he introduced Martin Luther King in Paris, and later gave Dr. King’s eulogy. During the 1968 unrest, Monod was the go-between for the students and the government. He refused the suggestion that he run for president, but he campaigned for several issues, including a higher public role for science. He wrote his famous book Chance and Necessity for this effort. This work emphasized the role of random mutations in the development of life and diversity, and the philosophical implications against anthropocentrism.

Dr. Carroll pointed out that we now know many things that Monod did not. For instance, we know about the meteor strike that opened the way to mammalian evolution and changed the course of life on Earth. The role of chance has now been well-established, from the molecular to the planetary scale. The challenge is how we deal with it.

In 1971 Monod became the director of the Pasteur Institute. In 1976, his health failing, he answered a letter from a young boy who wanted to know about Monod’s guiding principles. His answer was “courage, moral as much as physical, and a love of truth, or rather, a hatred of lies.”

Dr. Carroll concluded his lecture by thanking those who had provided letters and other documents to him to complete his work.
After the question and answer period, President Millstein thanked the speaker, made the usual housekeeping announcements, and invited guests to join the Society. At 10:01 p.m., President Millstein adjourned the 2341st meeting of the Society to the social hour.

Attendance: 70
The weather: Overcast
The temperature: 2°C
Respectfully submitted,

Zeynep Dilli
External Communications Director & Recording Secretary