The life of François Jacob

I have just read the autobiography ‘La statue intérieure’ by François Jacob. I find that this is a book of high literary quality. An indication of this going beyond my personal judgement is that after the book came out Jacob was invited to talk about it by Bernard Pivot on his TV programme ‘Apostrophes’. I understand that at the time when Pivot was active an invitation from him was a kind of certificate of quality for any new book which appeared in French. Jacob is best known as a biologist but this book convinces me that he is also a very gifted writer. The book is not a monumental work, but rather a collection of anecdotes which illuminate many aspects of Jacob’s life and, more generally, many aspects of the human condition. I find it difficult to say what makes up the charm of his writing – I can only suggest reading the book in order to experience it at first hand.

The first three quarters of the book describe the part of his life before he began his career as a scientific researcher in his late twenties. He had started out studying medicine with the aim of becoming a surgeon. After less than two years this was interrupted by the outbreak of the second world war. Jacob, who is Jewish, fled France and joined the French army in exile led by de Gaulle. He spent a large part of the war in Africa. Shortly after his return to France he was very seriously wounded. This made it impossible for him to become a surgeon and left him somewhat at a loss what to do. An interesting point, which he does not emphasize in the book, is that in a sense his being wounded in this case was a result of a decision of his own. He was tending to an officer who had just been wounded when the group was bombed again. The officer could not be moved and begged Jacob not to leave him alone. Jacob could not do anything to protect the man but he nevertheless stayed with him instead of taking cover. As a result of this he was almost killed himself. His decision was very honourable but maybe not very reasonable. In any case, he ended up spending many difficult months in hospital.

Jacob’s way into research was quite indirect and dependent on a lot of chance factors. For some time he worked in an institute which was supposed to produce penicillin in France but never came close to doing so. He became involved in developing and marketing an antibiotic called tyrothricin. Somewhat later he was able to enter the research group of André Lwoff at the Institut Pasteur. This paved the way for the work for which he was awarded the Nobel prize for medicine with Lwoff and Jacques Monod. He describes how each year to commemorate the anniversary of Pasteur’s death everyone working at the institute (not just the scientists) would make a formal visit to the tomb of Pasteur in the basement of one of the buildings. This was made more vivid for me by the fact that I had visited this tomb myself a couple of years ago. I was at the Pasteur museum quite late in the afternoon when not many visitors were there. I was shown the tomb by a very friendly employee of the museum. It is an impressive structure with lots of marble. I remarked to her that Robert Koch did not have such an impressive mausoleum. She replied that the Germans do not honour their great scientists in the way the French do. I am not sure how true this is but it is at least food for thought.

A large part of the last quarter of the book is a description of the work with Monod. There are also a lot of general reflections on the way in which science is done and how the process by which scientific ideas are developed contrasts with the final product as found in research papers and textbooks. It also gives a good picture of who did what in this collaboration. A key mechanism was the interaction between what Jacob was doing on prophages and what Monod was doing on the lac operon. From a certain point on they were always looking for analogies between the two. This part of the book gives a vivid portrait of the early days of the discipline of molecular biology. It includes a description of Jacob working feverishly with Sydney Brenner at Caltech to establish the existence of messenger RNA, in an atmosphere of general scepticism. The narrative ends after the completion of the project with Monod. What happened afterwards in Jacob’s (scientific) life? According to the book ‘In the beginning was the worm’ by Andrew Brown, Jacob tried to work on Caenorhabditis elegans but without success and he failed to get funding to set up an ‘Institut de la Souris’. Jacob later wrote a book called ‘La souris, la mouche et l’homme’ and perhaps I will read that sometime. But since my summer holiday is at an end it will not be very soon.

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2 Responses to “The life of François Jacob”

  1. mylen aromin Says:

    Francois Jacob contributions to medicine and Science are remarkable. Now, I am curious about his autobiography ‘La statue intérieure’ where you have described it as a a book of high literary quality. Thanks for sharing for insights about his book!

  2. Baruch Blumberg and Hepatitis B | Hydrobates Says:

    […] book has a very different flavour from the book of Francois Jacob I wrote about in a previous post. Blumberg gives the impression of being a highly cultured person but more than that of an […]

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