The Norton Zinder Collection - Part 2

James D. Watson and Norton Zinder in 1991

The following is the second post in a series about processing the Norton Zinder Collection. Sadly, Norton Zinder, renowned scientist and long-time member of the CSHL community, passed away earlier this week. Below, our Project Archivist Elizabeth reflects on what she learned about the man while working on his papers.

Getting to Know Norton Zinder…

For the past few months I have had the privilege of working on the Norton Zinder Collection, which reflects over fifty years of his exciting and fulfilling scientific career. One of the many strengths of this collection is how clearly it illustrates his role as a powerful force that shaped national scientific policy from the 1960s to the 2000s. It raises the question of whether the scientific community truly understands the value of someone with Zinder’s ability to write and testify before Congress in a coherent, effective manner on the difficult scientific concepts that gnaw at society’s deepest fears and anxieties.

The Scientific Method

Zinder was an active participant in five dynamic decades of biological science, emerging from the confines of laboratory to national and international arenas addressing political and moral issues such as recombinant DNA research guidelines, the demilitarization of chemical weapons, abortion, scientific misconduct, and the Human Genome Project. Notwithstanding the demanding travel and Congressional testimony schedule, he maintained an active role in the transition of Rockefeller Institute into Rockefeller University, with all the mundane administrative issues thereto. At Rockefeller he mentored numerous students while conducting research in his lab. All the while he also engaged the public by speaking with school teachers and even corresponding with an 8th grader about their science project.

Included in the collection are more than 60 lab notebooks dating from 1953 to 2000. This compilation of data represents his bacteriophage research performed at Rockefeller University, where Zinder started as an Associate in 1953. He achieved the rank of Professor in 1964 and John D. Rockefeller Professor in 1977. Additionally, he served Rockefeller University as the Head of the Laboratory of Genetics until he retired in 1998.

Letter to Zinder from Salvador Luria congratulating him on his election to the NAS

National Service
A significant part of the Zinder Collection relates to his five decades of National Academy of Science (NAS) activities. He was elected to the NAS in 1966, early in his career, and actively participated in several capacities. During the 1960s he was involved in the reorganization of NAS. In the 1970s he testified before the US Senate regarding policy issues on the use of recombinant DNA. He also appeared before the US House of Representatives Committee on Human Rights and began his extensive committee work on the Disposal of Chemical Weapon Stockpiles. During the 1980s Zinder continued to research, organize and testify on behalf of the National Research Council (NRC) established under NAS auspices. The 1990s brought his active comment on the policies and procedures of the Human Genome Project. During this period, Zinder also wrestled with the unpleasant issue of scientific research misconduct and the ramifications on academic funding. In this new century, Zinder continued his nomination of NAS members, Foreign Associate members and manuscript reviews as well as giving general advice and comments to scientific leaders and policy makers.

Science vs National Secrets

In addition to his meticulous expense records for carfare and modest meals incurred in the trips to Washington D.C., there is included an interesting cache of 1970-73 correspondence regarding the issue of members of the National Academy of Science and its undertaking of classified work for the United States government, which at the time was in the throes of the Vietnam conflict. These research projects would not be shared or made available to other NAS members in alleged contravention of the principal purposes of the NAS, under its charter, to provide technical advice to the government by drawing upon the entire national scientific community by way of research funding. Some member scientists found a moral dilemma in the situation where “secret” work was performed by NAS members under NAS/NRC letterhead and forwarded to the Department of Defense without disclosure to all NAS members. A flurry of correspondence, meetings, and draft resolutions resulted as the NAS tried to reconcile the needs of the nation with their scientific mandate of information exchange. Zinder’s articulate writing, testifying, and commenting on scientific issues reflect a profound respect for the defense of the country that provided refuge to his immigrant parents, as well as the need for a free flow of scientific information.

- EDP, Project Archivist

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