Posts Tagged ‘Human Genome’

This past June, fellow High Tech History writer Gil Press wrote an entry  in recognition of International Business Machines’ centennial. In the interim, I came across a documentary created by noted filmmaker Errol Morris  for IBM that draws on the experiences of, among others, the corporation’s former technicians and executives to tell a thirty-minute story of some of IBM’s more notable achievements in computing over the last one hundred years.

In this instance, Morris’ collaboration with noted composer Philip Glass resulted in an expertly produced, sentimental (occasionally overly so), and informative oral history. Morris and Glass previously worked together on the 2003 Oscar-winning documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. And this was not the first time that Morris had been commissioned to work for IBM. In 1999 he filmed a short documentary intended to screen at an in-house conference for IBM employees. The conference never took place and the film was mothballed, but you can check it out in full on his website.

The caption one sees at the very beginning of the film asserts “To visualize the future of IBM, you must know something of the past.” In the film’s initial segment, Frederick Brooks, a former IBM senior manager, noted that by the late 1950s, IBM’s computer product lines were in jeopardy due to lack of memory. In turn, Brooks’ manager, Bob O. Evans, was entrusted with scrapping IBM’s existing lines and replacing them, along with the labs they utilized. By 1965, as Brooks noted, computers comprised between 70 – 80%  of the company, so in essence, Evans’ initiative was “putting the whole thing at risk.” However, Evans’ gamble proved correct. The revolutionary concept they introduced was, in Brooks’ words, “a general purpose product line that utilized the same machine for all kinds of applications.” In other words, the computer at the heart of the machine remained the same, but you could configure the system to run individual applications.

Next is discussed IBM’s critical role in adapting technology they originally created for the military to improve the process of making reliable airline reservations. IBM partnered with American Airlines in the early 1960s to create the “Sabre” system that efficiently handled this complex problem. This technology has been so enduring, in fact, that it not only still aids the airline industry, but also Amtrak, the Chicago Board of Options Exchange, and New York City’s 911 system (to name only a few) – which all presently run on a version of Sabre.

IBM also is demonstrated to have been forward-thinking in such realms as non-discrimination policy: equal rights and opportunities for employees without regard to race; equal pay for men and women performing similar jobs, etc.

Others of the company’s monumental achievements discussed in the film include the development of supermarket scanning technology – together with the bar codes containing the information to be scanned; computers and related technology critical in the successful Apollo 13 manned space flight; the so-called “Acorn” project – the original IBM personal computer which sold 250,000 units in its first year and which has, in many ways, become the standard in personal computing, and finally, the company’s role in helping to map the human genome.

The film’s concluding point is that a company is reliant on skilled and motivated people who look at problems as opportunities rather than as roadblocks. There are intelligent people around, but they have to be motivated and perceptive, in addition to that. Those IBM alumni interviewed here all are shown to understand this, and the unspoken, yet obvious conclusion is that as IBM has succeeded – indeed thrived – over its history is a testament to how that psychology has been successfully utilized.

Morris’ film is in no way a comparative or balanced examination of IBM’s track record; but regardless, it is an important statement of how a successful technology company can make a lasting, beneficial impact on humanity. To this end, Fred Brooks quotes company founder Thomas Watson Sr., after asking a young engineer what IBM produces, as saying “We sell a service that satisfies.” One would be hard-pressed to deny that IBM has largely fulfilled that promise during its history.

-Chris Hartman

The film, in its entirety, can be seen below:


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“On April 17, 1974, a group of influential biologists met in the office of David Baltimore, a young faculty member who had recently moved into MIT’s new Center for Cancer Research … At MIT, the growth of the life sciences and technology eventually changed the Institute in ways that few of those who gathered that day in Baltimore’s office could possibly have foreseen.”  – from Becoming MIT  Moments of Decision.

The possibilities for the use of recombinant DNA (rDNA) were virtually limitless in the treatment of human diseases. However, everyone present in Baltimore’s office on that day in 1974 knew that many of the experiments they sought to carry out should not be undertaken until all relevant safety issues were considered.

From left: MIT biologist and Nobel Laureate Salvador Luria, Dr. Nancy Hopkins and Dr. David Baltimore at MIT's Center for Cancer Research, January, 1974. Courtesy, MIT Museum

As a result of an open letter co-authored by Baltimore, Stanford biologist Paul Berg and Harvard Medical School’s Richard Roblin, and published in three scientific journals, there was a broad-based moratorium on such experiments until the scientists could make recommendations to the National Institute of Health (NIH). The following February, a meeting took place at Pacific Grove, California’s Asilomar Conference Center to evaluate the situation before the submitting recommendations to NIH.

“Refrain from using the alphabet”

On Wed., June 23, 1976, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare announced the final NIH guidelines for conduct of rDNA experiments. And that evening, the local Cambridge, MA City Hall, with Mayor Alfred Vellucci presiding, convened its own special hearing into rDNA research and its safety implications for Harvard and MIT’s host city.  

Vellucci was concerned that through experiments at this “moderate risk” facility at Harvard, the scientists might concoct “… a disease that cannot be cured – even a monster.” The Major opened the hearing with words that were a bit less apocalyptic, but no less direct:

Then, for the person who is speaking, kindly give your name, your address, your title, and the organization that you represent. Refrain from using the alphabet. Most of us in this room, including myself, are lay people. We don’t understand your alphabet, so you will spell it out for us so we know exactly what you are talking about, because we are here to listen.”

The scientists who spoke on behalf of the facility must have had their jaws drop a few minutes later when a resolution was read out that would propose a two-year ban on all rDNA experimentation in Cambridge. The resolution did not pass, the scientists were thrown back on their heels to propose measures that were considered safe. NIH’s oversight was invoked, and after this first meeting ended inconclusively, others were planned for later in the summer that resulted in the creation of the Cambridge Experimentation Review Board, or CERB. Though Mayor Vellucci publicly declared victory over the “big scientists” at Harvard, David Baltimore and MIT were well-positioned to make significant strides in biomedical research.

The making of “Gene Town” 

In 1975, David Baltimore shared a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with two other scientists, and in 1977, with the passage of the Cambridge ordinance, MIT found itself ideally placed to make rapid progress with the new rDNA research.

Biomedical entrepreneur and philanthropist Jack Whitehead

In 1979, Baltimore started the negotiations what would eventually result in the Whitehead Institute at MIT. Jack Whitehead was a biomedical entrepreneur and philanthropist, and most of the negotiations involved where the new Institute should be built and faculty concerns over its model – it was to be independent but also affiliated with MIT.

The Whitehead Institute was built in 1982 and quickly proved to be a big success. It was at the very forefront of MIT’s efforts in genomics, and with the advent of the 1990s, the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Human Genomics served a pivotal role in the Human Genome Project. In 2004, this union became the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Putting gender on the table

“MIT Women Win a Fight against Bias. In a Rare Move, School Admits Discrimination.”Boston Globe front page headline, March 21, 1999.

MIT’s “A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT,” the so-called “MIT Report,” initiated by MIT Professor Nancy Hopkins, was being prepared by the Institute in advance of the Boston Globe story. It was emailed to faculty prior to the story, after which, on the following Tuesday, the New York Times came out with their own headline: “MIT Admits Discrimination against Female Professors.”

This report demonstrated that even highly successful women scientists, members of the National Academies and widely known for their research, were subject to subtle, unintentional discrimination – not blatant harassment – which according to the report, “consists of a pattern of powerful but unrecognized assumptions and attitudes that work systematically against women faculty even to the light of obvious good will.”

Dr. Nancy Hopkins of MIT

Needless to say, the issuance of the report caused a sensation. Response was worldwide, but much of it was positive: women and institutions were anxious to hear more, and asking for help to conduct similar studies. Additionally, there were words of thanks for MIT’s acknowledging a problem that many knew existed, but were not able to express easily. On April 7, 1999, Professor Hopkins and then dean Robert Birgeneau were invited to the White House, where President Bill Clinton and Mrs. Clinton congratulated MIT for identifying an important problem. Hopkins accepted sixteen invitations to speak that year, and in December of 1999, when the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in detail of how the report came about, the invitations grew exponentially. The Ford Foundation, among others, then offered MIT funding if they would assemble a syndicate of institutions to spread the word.

Though there were detractors, like a professor at the University of Alaska, who released his own report titled “MIT Tarnishes Its Reputation with Gender Junk Science.” This was picked up by the Independent Women’s Forum, a politically conservative research organization. And a Wall Street Journal editorial on December 29, 1999 called MIT’s actions “politicized exercises in ‘social science’”. Their argument was largely that the dearth of women faculty in the sciences was that they were less interested in entering science and may have different aptitudes that lead more easily into other fields more congruent with their values. This of course had no bearing to the treatment of the women faculty at MIT, who were highly committed and accomplished scientists.

Spearheaded by MIT Provost Robert Brown, deans in the other MIT schools were each asked to assemble committees to follow a similar procedure to that done by the School of Science. And in 2000, the MIT President, Charles Vest, and Provost Brown created the Council on Faculty Diversity. And in 2001, President Vest invited his peers at eight other institutions (Berkeley, Caltech, Harvard, Michigan, Penn, Princeton, Stanford and Yale) to meet at MIT for a conference, “Gender Equity in Academic Science and Engineering.”

The long-term effect of the initiatives undertaken by Professor Hopkins and President Vest and his colleagues – both within and without MIT – has been to gradually, but steadily increase the number of female faculty at MIT and its sister institutions. But it is quite possible, if not probable, that if Professor Hopkins had not resolutely undertaken this initiative and enlisted the wholehearted support of her fellow female faculty, these reforms would not have taken place. When presented with the letter Professor Hopkins had drafted and which had been signed by sixteen of the seventeen women faculty, dean Robert Birgeneau recalled the impact it had on him:

Listening to the personal stories of all 15, one at a time, was simply overwhelming. At that moment I realized that there really was a systemic problem and that it needed to be addressed immediately not just for the health and welfare of these women faculty, but also for the health of MIT as a whole.”

Conclusions: MIT at 150 and beyond

Current MIT President Susan Hockfield, in the book’s “Epilogue,” describes two main lessons learned from the Institute’s 150 year history. First, that MIT’s founding ideals from the time of founder William Barton Rogers have served the Institute well. Rogers favored fundamental scientific principles and direct experimentation over “the minute details and manipulations of the arts.” Adherence to these principles, Hockfield writes, saved MIT from reducing itself to an industrial school. Rogers also believed in a mission of service to society, which greatly inspired MIT’s contributions to World War II efforts.

Secondly, MIT’s model, which in the 1940s put into form the concept of the federally-funded research university, created historic advances in America’s security, health, innovation and prosperity. But with us now in the second decade of the new millennium, MIT has challenges as well. New frontiers must be pursued, and as an example, in 2006, MIT devoted resources and talent to approach the vast global problem of sustainable energy. The MIT Energy Initiative was the outgrowth of this effort and embraces all the principles established founder Rogers and continued by the MIT community to this day, and presumably, far beyond.

Current MIT President Susan Hockfield

Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision was published through the MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is the companion publication to MIT’s yearlong sesquicentennial anniversary celebration, MIT150.

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