In the late 19th century, my grandparents emigrated to the United States from eastern Europe and settled in the small New Jersey town of Perth Amboy, where my mother and father were both born and raised. I was born in 1935 in Perth Amboy and lived there until graduation from high school. I have one sibling, my younger sister, Wilma. Our mother, Ida Stolz, worked as a secretary and bookkeeper. Our father, Bernard, had begun engineering training, but this was aborted by the economic catastrophe of the great depression. Luckily, he was able to find employment as an electrician, and the income produced by two working parents enabled our family to live in reasonable comfort in a small rented house.
During my childhood Perth Amboy was a wonderful paradigm of ethnic, religious, and racial diversity – and the friends I played basketball, football, and Monopoly with came from a broad spectrum of backgrounds. The town was small enough so that my parents and I knew, and were known by, much of the community. From age 11, I worked at various jobs after school and on weekends and sold subscriptions to magazines. As a teenager, I found work at summer camps in the mountains of New York, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. I learned to play the piano and ukulele, and later – when I developed a serious interest in American folk music – the five-string banjo. In secondary school, I began to write songs and through a combination of perseverance and good fortune, managed to have one recorded by an internationally-known vocalist. However, while I enjoyed playing and writing music, it was clear to me that music should remain a hobby.
My father was a man of insatiable curiosity about the workings of nature, and enthusiastically supported and nurtured my own curiosity about the natural world. While growing up, I was torn between a career in physics versus one in medicine and biology. During high school, my interest in biology grew and I decided to become a physician. I attended Rutgers University for pre-medical studies, and in the fall of 1956 entered the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. I had gifted teachers, and the lectures that I attended as a medical student excited me about the field of cellular immunology. Under the mentorship of Professor of Pathology, Charles Breedis, I carried out after-class and summertime experiments aimed at elucidating the basis for immunological rejection of foreign skin grafts. My research results attracted the attention of other cellular immunologists and gained me the opportunity to spend a summer working in the London laboratory of Professor Peter Medawar.
Stimulated by the excitement of addressing fundamental biological questions by laboratory experimentation, I concluded that I was more suited to a career in academic medicine, where I would do research and teaching, than to one as a practicing physician. A postdoctoral appointment at the U.S. National Institutes of Health attracted me to the then-emerging field of molecular biology, and after further training in the laboratory of Jerard Hurwitz at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, I joined the Stanford University faculty in 1968 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine. I taught clinical medicine to students and medical house-staff and concurrently established a laboratory to begin experiments aimed at understanding the molecular mechanisms by which small DNA circles called plasmids enable bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics. I particularly wished to know how plasmids had evolved and were propagated. The experiments I devised to answer these questions, together with advances made separately in the laboratory of Herbert W. Boyer, led to the collaborative discoveries recognized by the Shaw Prize. I have remained at Stanford throughout my professional career, later transferring my faculty appointment to the Department of Genetics and becoming Chair of that department. I currently hold the Kwoh-Ting Li Professorship at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
In 1961, I married Joanna Lucy Wolter, whom I had met while I was a medical student. We have two children, Anne and Geoffrey.
Like most scientists, I feel that the opportunity to spend each day doing work that I love is a great joy. Part of this delight is the opportunity to interact with students and to communicate to them the excitement of discovery that is the foundation of science and technology. I take pride that during the three and a half decades that I have been a member of the Stanford faculty, my laboratory has trained well over a hundred scientists from 18 nations. During these years, my students, postdoctoral fellows, and I have continued to investigate the biology of bacterial plasmids and also have helped to elucidate mechanisms underlying the control of gene expression, of cell growth and development in higher organisms, and of aging. An important focus of my current research is to understand the functions of cellular genes that are recruited and used by disease-producing viruses.
On a personal level, I like to ski, sail, and hike. I also still enjoy playing the five-string banjo – when my family can tolerate it.
9 September 2004, Hong Kong