The fertile incubator

On growing up at Cold Spring Harbor

David Bryson 26 August 2007

A childhood with a view: the Harbor from one of the Lab's dorms

My perception of scientists was that they were all teachers as well as researchers

I was born in Manhattan in 1938 because my father, Vernon Bryson, was a graduate student in genetics at Columbia, and that was because his father, Lyman Bryson, was a professor at Columbia and also host of the CBS radio program Invitation to Learning, a discussion of the great ideas of philosophy, culture, and history. All together, the beginning of brain food for the baby's brain.

We moved out to Long Island in 1942 so that my father could work at the biological laboratories at Cold Spring Harbor, an idyllic campus on the shores of an estuary of Long Island Sound and one of the places where the new science of molecular biology was born. When I was old enough to roam about safely, my father would take me along to his lab. I recall sitting outside by the boat dock with a supply of dry ice to mix with wet water, to spectacular effect. Flashback to a scene with Barbara McClintock, whose work on mobile genetic elements in corn would win her the Nobel Prize more than forty years later. I remember her taking a break from her “jumping genes”, attired in a military-style jumpsuit and smoking a manly Camel cigarette. It became CSH lore that it was the only place in the world where two Nobel laureates lived side-by-side in adjacent houses: Barbara McClintock and Alfred Hershey, who was honored in 1962 for his work on virus replication.

At age seven or eight I was enrolled in the CSH Nature Study Course, and didn't much like noodling around the verdant hillside for bugs and frogs, preferring the more academic ambiance inside the lab buildings, where the grown-ups deftly maneuvered their stacks of flasks and petri dishes.

My perception of scientists was that they were all teachers as well as researchers. At age nine or ten, a newly arrived scientist asked me if I knew how a rocket could move in space with nothing to push against. I was amazed at this evident paradox, and right there and then, with my spontaneous private tutor, became unforgettably acquainted with Newton and his laws of motion.

We lived in Halesite, another nearby harbor, surrounded by what F. Scott Fitzgerald, in The Great Gatsby, called the Idle Rich of the North Shore. If our neighbors were born with silver spoons in their mouths, I’d have to say that mine was a science spoon, and for my young ego a more savory spoon indeed. It was not until years later that I realized the osmotic effect that CSH had on my intellectual life, perhaps aided by something alchemical in the cold spring water I would bend over to drink outside the Davenport lab.

The highlight of the year was the annual Christmas Eve party at the very old Colonial home of the Director (then the bacterial geneticist Milislav Demerec, a post now held by cancer biologist Bruce Stillman). A very special Christmas with scientists and their families, and for a child the best of all possible wee worlds. Also uniquely CSH were the summer square dances on the large lawn next to highway 25A. My father would make up his own calls, such as "rub your belly with linseed oil, wrap your head in aluminum foil, swing your partner!"

At the ages of fifteen to seventeen, I was hired ever summer to scrape agar from zillions of spent petri dishes, and of course was befriended by the participants in the famous Phage Course, with many future Nobel laureates in biology representing that Golden Age of microbial genetics. Instead of the formalities of Stockholm, the mock graduations at PU (Phage University) featured my father with his Groucho Marxian & Chaplinesque antics and garbled irreproducible results. This mix of intelligence and wit has become a benchmark worldwide, and can be seen in Harvard’s annual Ignoble Awards and more.

In the summer of 1953 I was nearby as Watson and Crick gave the first public lecture on the double helix. I remember feeling hurt and jealous, the same emotion I would experience when my favorite baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, lost a game. To have outsiders, non-CSHers, get the brass ring for the Darwinian alphabet burst my bubble of peerless perfection surrounding growing up at Cold Spring Harbor. But looking back as I near three score and ten, I realize I was given a great gift which later blossomed into a scientific dream.