My First American Friend: August H. Doermann
Starting in late October 1948, I spent one of my happiest years as a Carnegie Fellow at Cold Spring Harbor in Dr. Demerec's group. I wanted to shift from Drosophila genetics to the then very new microbial genetics. It was simpler than I had imagined; I was given a quick overview of the projects in progress, briefly instructed on how to make dilutions and spread plates, given a mutant strain of E.coli, and I was off measuring reverse mutation rates. We were on the second floor of what is now the Carnegie Library. The dish washing was done in the basement, where some work with Drosophila was still going on. The glassware was moved up and down by a dumb waiter and since plastic Petri dishes had not been invented yet, one could hear now and then the sound of glassware crashing, promptly followed by Dr. Demerec's alarmed reactions.
Newly arrived from Italy, I knew no one in the lab except for Dr. Demerec, whom I had briefly met at the Genetics Congress in Stockholm that same year. The North-West corner room was then the lab of August H. Doermann, also a Carnegie Fellow, a few years my senior. Because of the topography of the building, he had to cross the room where I had my work table in order to reach his lab. This arrangement made him the first victim of my attempts to communicate in English.
Gus, as he was generally known, was working on phage T4. It was in his petri plates that I first saw phage plaques. He was an incredibly meticulous worker. At the time he was studying the course of intracellular phage development. His observations on the eclipse of phage infectivity during multiplication of the phage genetic material are classic, still referred to today. To study variations in bacterial turbidity upon phage infection, Gus had constructed an extremely sensitive nephelometer, of which he was very proud, and this was in fact the first thing he demonstrated for me.
Gus and his wife Harriet had no children yet and Urey cottage, where they lived, had become the social center for the younger unattached inhabitants of Carnegie and the Biolab. I spent many evenings at the cottage discussing all sorts of things (even politics: comparing Europe and the U.S. and their different views of socialism - the very mention of which used to visibly worry Harriet!), often catalyzed by a few drinks. Gus was most helpful when the time came for me to buy a car (a 1939 Hudson for 400 dollars: it lasted more than a year and took me as far as Bloomington, Indiana) and learn how to drive. In the spring, with Gus and another lab member, Bruce Wallace (a population geneticist, later of Cornell University and Virginia Poly), we traveled to an exciting radiobiology meeting at Oak Ridge, a trip that gave me a glimpse of the South, at a time when segregation was still in force.
Gus was the first person to talk to me of the "phage group": he had been a postdoctoral fellow with Max Delbruck and was enthusiastic about Max's approach. A year later I also was working in a phage lab; I suspect that Gus may have had indirectly something to do with this development. Gus left Cold Spring Harbor for a position at Oak Ridge, and later professorships at Rochester and Seattle. His lab at the University of Washington was for many years the center for work on phage T4. We kept in touch. I visited him at Oak Ridge and at Rochester. He came once to Stockholm, where I worked for many years. Much later, when I was back in Pasadena and he was already into what he was hoping would be a happy and active retirement in Canada, he happened to briefly visit UCLA. He called me up, and we had an incredibly long telephone conversation, going over our more recent activities, making plans for a visit to his retreat, and recollecting the wonderful year spent together at Cold Spring Harbor. Sadly, not long after that, I was told, Gus was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I wrote him a note, to which there was no answer. He died within weeks (1991). He was my first American friend.