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The meeting at CERN


The founding myth of EMBO, set out in John Tooze’s 1981 history of the organization for the launch issue of the EMBO Journal (1), is that:


In December 1962, immediately following the Nobel Prize investiture ceremony, John C. Kendrew together with James D. Watson visited [CERN] in Geneva. Leo Szilard… was also in Geneva at the time… During the course of a conversation the three visitors had with Victor Weisskopf… Leo Szilard proposed that Europe’s molecular biologists should… establish an international laboratory for molecular or fundamental biology patterned on the CERN model… The upshot was a meeting held at Ravello, Italy on 16-17 September 1963.


Szilard, famously, had arrived in Geneva during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, bearing 15 suitcases and announcing himself to the CERN director Victor Weisskopf as ‘the first refugee from the Third World War.’ But other aspects of this myth require clarification. James Watson is the only participant in the meeting still alive, and he reveals that the motives of the three visitors were very different. Furthermore, as is clearly documented elsewhere (2), Szilard had returned to Washington DC by the time Watson and Kendrew arrived in Geneva.


After the Nobel Prize I went first to Berlin and then Cologne and then I went to Geneva… I was going to spend part of the Christmas holidays with Alfred Tissières [skiing] at Verbier… The driving force for the meeting [with Weisskopf] was John Kendrew… [he and I] met in Geneva… I was disappointed that Szilard was no longer there… I can imagine what we would have said, which was that molecular biology in Europe lacked a Cold Spring Harbor, which was a site where they could get together to talk.


Although not present at the meeting, Sydney Brenner offers an interesting sidelight on what had happened previously.


Szilard and Weisskopf wanted to found CERB, Centre Européenne de Recherche Biologique. The idea was that nuclear physics and molecular biology would go together. 


Other evidence (see Buzzati-Traverso’s letter of 13 December 1962 to Victor Weisskopf, reproduced in the EMBO ‘Silver Book’ of 2004) (3) suggests that Weisskopf had been thinking about a biology laboratory next to CERN before Szilard even arrived. But from this point on, it was John Kendrew who took the initiative in driving forward the proposal. At this stage, he clearly envisaged a European laboratory, with a working title of CERB, based in Geneva and working very closely with CERN. By the time of the Ravello meeting, less than a year later, the proposal had developed into something more complex.


1. Tooze, J. (1981) A brief history of the European Molecular Biology Organization. EMBO J. sample copy, 1–6.


2. Lanouette, W. (1992) Genius in the shadows: A biography of Leo Szilard, Macmillan, chapter 25.


3. EMBO: 40 years of success, 2004.


Georgina Ferry Source: EMBO in perspective: A half century in the life sciences