Dr. Varmus Goes to Washington

Robert Cook-Deegan in American Scientist:

ScreenHunter_02 Apr. 18 08.46 Harold Varmus’s new book, The Art and Politics of Science, is a timely memoir of a remarkable career. It hits the stores just as that career is taking a new turn: Varmus will be one of the foremost scientific advisers to the Obama administration.

In this memoir, Varmus traces the trajectory of his career, outlining events in roughly chronological order. He moves rapidly over his early life, touching on his childhood in New York City, his undergraduate years at Amherst, his graduate studies in English literature at Harvard and his training at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Armed with a medical degree but drawn to science, he did research in the U.S. Public Health Service at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as an alternative to military service during the Vietnam War (the “yellow beret” era, which was a golden age for NIH research).

Then in 1970 he took a scientific faculty position at the University of California at San Francisco, where researchers such as J. Michael Bishop and Herbert Boyer were doing groundbreaking research in molecular biology. Varmus entered into a long and conspicuously productive collaboration with Bishop, studying the molecular biology of cancer genes. The two men became famous and influential, primarily because they discovered cellular genes that could cause cancer when mutated and hijacked by RNA viruses. To those in the field, their laboratory was a formidable competitive force, filled with talented graduate students and postdocs attracted by hot science.

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