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The Symposia, 1933 — 2003

1933:   Surface Phenomena, Vol. I

Organizer: Reginald Harris

Table of Contents

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The first Symposium was a remarkable event, and not merely because it lasted for one month, with participants carrying out experiments in the laboratories as well as giving talks in the meeting. It exemplified Harris's conviction that a quantitative approach to biology was the way forward, and that the older descriptive approaches were incapable of revealing the deeper workings of organisms. For Harris, these deeper workings would be revealed by physical investigations of living materials and the topics were drawn from what was already known as biophysics. These were the hot topics of research in the 1920s and 1930s: ion movements across membranes; electrical properties of proteins; colloids; nerve conductance; osmotic effects on cells; and oxidation-reduction reactions-all susceptible to physico-chemical analysis.

The meeting was small with just 29 scientists and, in contrast to later Symposia which are noted for their international cast of participants, this first Symposium was drawn entirely from North-America-28 participants were from the United States and one from Canada. Two foreign scientists contributed papers to the Symposium volume-A. V. Hill (Nobel laureate 1922) contributed a paper on nerve conduction while T. Svedberg (Nobel laureate 1926) sent in a paper on ultracentrifugation.

The participation of current or future Nobel laureates has been a feature of the Symposia and, despite disclaimers to the contrary, has

been taken as a measure of the importance of the meetings. The participants in 1933 set a high standard for subsequent Symposia; Herbert Gasser won a Nobel Prize in 1944, and other eminent participants included Kenneth Cole (nerve conduction), Donald Van Slyke (protein chemist) and Leonor Michaelis (Michaelis-Menten equation) .

Through the heroic efforts of Harris, the first volume of the dusky red books was published in December, 1933, just five months after the meeting. It cost $2.90 and the first two copies were purchased by G. R. Johnstone and Gilbert L. Houser. In what must have been a major gamble, Harris printed 1000 copies, 900 of which had been sold by 1936. The sales of the Symposia volumes were an important source of income for the Biological Laboratory, and, some 30 years later, saved what had become the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory from bankruptcy.

Jan A. Witkowski

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