History as a Bridge to the Future: LSF Launches Book on Genentech

Theral Timpson

Last month, while interviewing Steve Burrill, he introduced me to a new organization which he chairs, The Life Sciences Foundation (LSF). “What we want to do with the Foundation is to tell the real story of what happened,” he told me. “History and information are different. History is putting the information in a context that makes it useful in the future. Young people today don’t know who Cetus Corporation was.”

The Foundation

I met the CEO of the new Foundation, Arnold Thackray, at a recent event the LSF hosted, a book launch for Sally Smith Hughes’ newly published, “Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech.” Appropriately, the event took place at Genentech Hall at UCSF and attending were many of the folks from the early days of Genentech. The terrific event represents the way the LSF can make a difference in the industry.

Thackray comes to the Foundation with a long career in keeping a history of science. Teaching first both in Cambridge and Oxford in his native England, Thackray moved to the US in 1981. A year later, he helped create the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, the first academic department with a focus on science in a social context. That year, he also became the founding president of the Center for the History of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, which was later given the name we know today, the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF). Through its collection of instruments, papers, and books and regular conferences and lectures, the CHF has been fostering an understanding of chemistry’s (and related sciences) impact on society.

“History has to be made. What happens is just stuff,” Thackray says. “History is what you make out of stuff. And if you don’t make the history, someone will make it for you. And probably someone who is hostile to you.”

I’m very happy to see such an organization as the LSF. At mendelspod.com we teamed up early on with science historian, Nathaniel Comfort. He wrote a series of blogs exploring the reasons we need a history of science. Our own goal at mendelspod.com is to put a human face on the life sciences. To put the headlines we see each day in a social context. To go deeper than stock symbols and stock prices to the discoveries which propel us into new places and the stories which remind us how to go forward.

The LSF boasts some luminaries on their Advisory Board, including Venture Capitalist Brook Byers, industry titan, Craig Venter, and Jay Flatley, CEO of Illumina, so they should be able to get access to much of the history being made.

“Before memories fade and science moves on, our urgent mission is to collect and preserve the record of achievement, beginning with biotechnology.” So reads the the Foundation brochure that we picked up at the book launch. “Over the decades since DNA’s decoding, biotechnology has gone from promise to performance. . . . To tell this story is to make our case - to thought leaders in our legislature, universities, schools, and media - to remind ourselves how far we’ve come,” explains the brochure.

The Life Sciences Foundation has a website up and has compiled a nice collection of video interviews with some of the great figures in bio, including a video of Watson and Crick at the pub discussing their discovery. Some of these videos are linked from the rich collection of oral histories at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, a treasure I urge everyone to enjoy.

One of the videos on the home page of the LSF is an interview with Herb Boyer, early pioneer of recombinant DNA technology and co-founder of Genentech. Boyer recounts several stories from the early days of the company such as the day they came up with the name. It’s Boyer’s and Genentech’s early history that Sally Hughes presents in her book and what Thackray says is “the first serious objective history of the beginnings of biotech.”

The Event

Boyer was slated to attend the book launch event, but couldn’t make it due to an illness. Many others did make it. Tom Perkins served as the first chairman of Genentech. A deft speaker, 79 year old Perkins gave mostly a political speech decrying the idea of government investment in private enterprise (Solyndra), but did have a few stories from the early days. Of his VC firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, he remembers jokingly, “we tried tennis shoes and then snowmobiles, and that didn’t work, so then we tried DNA.”

Judy Swanson, widow of co-founder Bob Swanson, was on hand to tell some of her own stories and pat the Genentechies on the back. “I didn’t marry Bob for his money,” she began, “he had no money.” Judy recalled that it was very difficult in the beginning and they didn’t know how things would turn out. For Judy, relationships were very important in Genentech’s history. She said she didn’t realize in the beginning just how deep the relationships would turn out to be.”

The star of the evening, Sally Smith Hughes, is a soft spoken, modest woman who has done literally thousands of hours of interviews with the early pioneers of biotech over the years. The interviews are kept at UC Berkeley’s Bankcroft Library. For terrific archival quality oral histories, the collection is unmatched. I’ve already spent hours lost in the first person accounts of some real characters. Sally’s new book chronicles the improbable history of Genentech from the founding to the prosperous company that IPO’d in 1980. Drawing on her hours of interviews, Hughes paints rich portraits of the founders and details what she calls a “novel creation--the entrepreneurial biologist.” How did the company raise money in the low economic times of the 70’s, she asks. How does one convert regular scientific experiments into commercial success? These questions she answers in a book she hopes might “serve as a bridge to biotech for the general public.”

The book launch played out as a Genentech reunion. Most everyone knew each other and many were hugging. For one who wasn’t around in ’76 (I was a year old), it was an eye opener into a special time in the history of our industry when the stage was set for hundreds of companies to come. In her book, Hughes is certainly not hostile to her subjects, but rather brings a time that will soon be forgotten back to life. Thackray, from the Life Sciences Foundation, says they’re working on their own history of biotech book. Such projects as these will go a long way to helping us remember the stories and people who have brought us here, so we might better know how to shape our future. In soft, understated tones and graying hair, Hughes put it nicely, “to make tomorrow happen, use yesterday as one of your instruments.”

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