Lessons from 48 Years of Extraordinary History


Professor Michael Oldstone (left) and Professor Emeritus Charles Cochrane, shown here with La Jolla Historical Society board member Connie Branscomb

Thanks to a March 17 event organized by the La Jolla Historical Society, dozens of people had the opportunity to hear two long-time faculty members speak on the development of The Scripps Research Institute.

Professor Emeritus Charles Cochrane, who was among the pioneering new members of the institute in 1961, and Professor Michael Oldstone, who arrived at Scripps Research in 1966, spoke on the emergence of the institution over the last five decades.

In the Beginning

Cochrane shared his perspective on the forces that led Frank Dixon, himself, and investigators William Weigle, Joseph Feldman, and Jacinto Vazquez, along with seven postdocs and twenty or so support staff, to pick up and move from the University of Pittsburgh across the country to a place virtually unknown in the East at that time - La Jolla, California. At that time neither the Salk Institute nor the University of California, San Diego, were present in La Jolla.

"Our friends and colleagues in the East all told us we'd be back in a year," Cochrane said. They were wrong. As part of the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation run by Edmund Keeney, the scientists found exactly what they were looking for - a place they could do research full time, without excessive bureaucracy or burdensome requirements to teach, do rounds, or serve on committees, a place where science came first.

Once in La Jolla, the scientists got to work, conducted research, and published papers. Soon, they found that word was spreading about the high caliber of their studies and postdocs from around the world were eager to join them. Dixon also recruited other scientific talent, not only in his Division of Experimental Pathology, but also in the fields of biochemistry and microbiology.

At first, Cochrane recalls, the number of scientists on the entire Torrey Pines mesa was small. Although the elite group included renowned figures such as Jonas Salk (who founded the Salk Institute) and Dave Bonner (who founded the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) biology department), the regular gatherings of those sharing information about these budding institutions could be held in the library conference room at Scripps, which Cochrane estimates was a 12 x 18 foot space. As institutions grew, the collegiality remained and the scientists shared ideas, grants, and joint appointments at sister institutions.

"You can imagine the germination of ideas that came from all this mixed talent," Cochrane noted. The size of the Scripps group doubled every four to five years, said Cochrane, and new biomedical institutions, such as the Burnham Institute for Medical Research and the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology, sprang up in the region. Today, he noted, San Diego is the third largest cluster of science and biotechnology industry in the entire country, after San Francisco and Boston.

In terms of lessons from this extraordinary history, Cochrane observed that the progress over the last decades depended on the independence of the scientists, with every lab head responsible for the research conducted by his or her own team. Maintaining this independence is key to maintaining the high quality of the science, he said.

In addition, Cochrane emphasized that the story of Scripps and other San Diego institutions shows hundreds of times over that basic research pays off with medical advances. As one example, he pointed to the recent discovery of broadly neutralizing antibodies against the influenza virus (work done independently at Scripps Research and the Burnham Institute), which may lead to a one-time, universal flu vaccine. Cochrane also noted the development of a synthetic peptide modeled after surfactant protein B, which acts to hold the air sacs of the lungs open. The synthetic peptide surfactant is currently under review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in the treatment of pre-term infants. Its use will broaden to people with cystic fibrosis, adults with acute lung injury, and patients with acute asthma.

Phenomenal Growth

Oldstone, who first came to Scripps Research as a postdoc in Dixon's lab, also shared his thoughts on how Scripps Research came to be "an amazing place."

Oldstone credited Dixon, who was widely respected as a pioneer in immunology, with laying the foundation of scientific excellence, collegiality, overlapping disciplines, industry support, and what Oldstone called the philosophy of "scientific Darwinism," in which investigators experience the selective pressure of needing to bring in their own research grants to survive at the institute.

"The advantage is we're allowed to spend almost 100 percent of our time in research," said Oldstone, echoing Cochrane's remarks. "If we want to teach, we can teach, but there's no obligation to teach. There aren't many places in the world where that can be done. That's why it's not difficult to get people to come to Scripps."

When Richard Lerner, who trained as a postdoc in Dixon's lab, became the second of two directors in the institute's history, Lerner embraced the basic tenets established by Dixon, in Oldstone's view. However, Lerner greatly expanded what was in place, growing the institute, bringing in chemists to complement biologists, and forging new partnerships with industry.

Some milestone dates in the history of the institute mentioned at the event included:

Oldstone noted the phenomenal growth between 1961, when Scripps Research had five scientists, seven postdocs, 20 support staff, and no graduate students, and today, when Scripps Research has approximately 200 principal investigators (three Nobel laureates and 19 members of the National Academy of Sciences), 300 other professors and scientific staff, 700 postdoctoral fellows, 200 graduate students, and 1,400 technical and administrative staff.

"Scripps has been very innovative," Oldstone said, "and focused on science."

Among the audience at the event were Marion Dixon, the wife of the late Frank Dixon, and members of the original 1961 staff Pat McConahey, Toni Tishon, and Kay Weigle, as well as some early members of the UCSD faculty.

The event was part of a series at the La Jolla Historical Society, "The Emergence of Pioneering Scientific Institutions in La Jolla," which also included lectures focusing on the Salk Institute and UCSD. For more information on the historical society, see the La Jolla Historical Society website.
For more information on Scripps Research, see the Scripps Research website.