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Science as autobiographyThe Troubled Life of Niels Jerne
By Thomas Söderqvist
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2003 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter One"I Have Never in My Life Felt I Belonged in the Place Where I Lived"
On several occasions during his life, Niels Jerne considered writing an autobiography, and in 1985, six months after receiving the Nobel Prize, he came close to doing so. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation wanted to include him in a series of current outstanding scientists, a project for which he would be well paid. Nevertheless, Jerne hesitated. He was not sure, he wrote, whether it made sense to write an autobiography at a time when there were so many scientists.
In particular he wondered where to begin-with his ancestors or his birth? Or a little more unconventionally, at the end, say, or even midway in life? "The point of my story," he wrote, "is that, quadrilingual by ... education and steeped in fantasies about randomness and diversity, I came face to face with immunology when I was forty years old and found that she needed a new look." But when was it, really, that he first encountered immunology? When he came to the State SerumInstitute in Copenhagen, in the early 1940s? Or six years later, when he finished his doctoral dissertation? And was it the encounter with immunology that had been the turning point in his life?
Jerne finally concluded that a conventional approach-going back to his ancestors-suited him best. His Danish roots had always played a major role in his self-image and his reminiscences; ever since childhood, he had been interested in his family's history and "how to preserve some scraps of memories from being extinguished by forgetfulness." He drafted a couple of outlines for his autobiography-in one of them the first thirteen chapters were to cover the forty-five years preceding his breakthrough as an immunologist, while his subsequent international career got only four:
Prelude: The North Sea An exile from his island Growing up in Holland Being both precocious and Spätzünder I join the United Fruit Company, and study calculus Philosophy = Science (Hoping to emulate Francis Bacon) I pretend to study physics, and learn Greek and Latin Being a polyglot Going back home (to study medicine). Lectures vs. books Waiting for the war, Shakespeare and the painters I enter immunology through a study of probability I meet scientific super intelligences. Thesis 1950 With Delbrück to US Geneva Am I a microbiologist? Pittsburgh Harvard, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Basel Three occasions of "knowing" the truth 1954, 1970, 1973
Only scattered autobiographical notes came out of it, however, and the uncashed check from the Sloan Foundation is still in the archive. But the structure for his spontaneous life story was fixed for him-the early years appeared much more important than the later career in science.
In conversations, Jerne told often and eagerly of being able to trace his father's family through generations of fishermen and shipmasters on Fanø, a small island off the west coast of Denmark, where his father, Hans Jessen Jerne, was born in 1877. After receiving his grammar school diploma in 1894 Hans Jessen became "an exile from his island"; he spent nearly three years as a bookkeeper for an English shipbroker, had various jobs in Germany, and at last returned to Denmark to manage a slaughterhouse. His father's wandering years always remained a source of fantasy for Niels; a few personal dedications written in Hans Jessen's books suggest that, for a time, he may have moved in Copenhagen's artistic and literary circles, a story that bears a striking likeness to the son's bohemian inclinations forty years later. Before his exile Hans Jessen Jerne had become engaged to Else Marie Jensen Lindberg, a miller's daughter from a little village north of Esbjerg. They were eventually married in 1904. The next year a son, Thomas, was born, and the following year a daughter, Karen. Their growing family did not mean an end to traveling. Hans Jessen experimented with celluloid, the plastic of that day, and discovered a way of making signboards by laying a thin celluloid film on colored cardboard. In 1908 he started a factory to produce a charity badge in the shape of a flower, which quickly became a success and made him well known to generations of Danes as "the first maker of the Autumn Blossom." After their second daughter, Elsa, was born in 1910, the family moved to London, where Hans Jessen established yet another company. There, on the day before Christmas Eve 1911, the family's fourth child, a boy, was born and christened Niels Kaj.
Business went well for Hans Jessen Jerne, and the family soon moved to pastoral surroundings near Wimbledon. In the spring of 1914, however, Hans Jessen became ill and for a time could not support the family. The children were left with their grandparents in Esbjerg. The assassination in Sarajevo and the European war that ensued changed the situation for the better. Hans Jessen is said to have met the owner of a large export slaughterhouse in Rotterdam, who was "looking for a man who could run a bacon factory for him" and who "had the idea that he could make money by supplying the German army, I suppose, with meat." Hans Jessen was employed to establish a factory in the village of Terwolde in the eastern Netherlands.
At the beginning of 1915 the family, including the last-born daughter, Emily, was reunited. But only the three oldest children, who were Danish citizens, were allowed to pass through Germany to the neutral Netherlands. Niels Kaj, who had a British passport, was stopped at the border. The incident is among his favorite anecdotes: "So my father ... he travels to Denmark ... and picked up his children to bring them to Holland.... But he didn't bring me, because the Germans ... didn't let me through, so I stayed in Esbjerg, with my grandparents, for about a year." Young Niels Kaj was not able to go home until August 1915, apparently thanks to Hans Jessen's connections with the German army. Unfortunately, the archive reveals little concerning the child's long stay in Esbjerg. The stamps in his passport and the official records confirm his absence, but he has no memory of it: "No, nothing that I can clearly distinguish from [later episodes].... After all ... I was only two years old, so it is difficult."
"Give sorrow words," says Malcolm in Macbeth. But a small child who loses his nearest relations cannot describe his sufferings; his loss cannot be made comprehensible. Psychiatric literature gives no unequivocal answer to the question of how might an early separation affect one's later life? On the plus side is a greater probability of creativeness; on the minus is the increased probability of alcohol dependency, of psychic depressions and of difficulty, later in life, in dealing with the loss of close relatives. All these consequences did in fact from time to time mark Niels Jerne's later life. It is reasonable to suppose that the separation of this three-year-old boy from his parents sheds some light on the feeling of cultural alienation and existential insecurity, of personal detachment, and of desire to live within his own world, which began to be expressed during his adolescent years.
Niels Kaj's first vague reminiscences are of his arrival in Terwolde: "A whetstone? Butchers-blood, on the back of Tom's bicycle?" But beyond that, neither their house nor the flat and lush landscape beside the Ijssel River evoked any memories. His first clear recollections came from Assen, a rapidly expanding city in the northeastern province of Drenthe, where the family moved two years later, when Hans Jessen Jerne became director of a new and even larger export slaughterhouse. The family settled down in the city's prosperous southern environs, in a big house on Wilhelminastraat, "a very beautiful street ... and we had a large house, and, we were sort of, we belonged to the best families. We had a house with a large garden and our neighbors were the doctor's family." Foreigners were rare in this part of the country, far away from the more cosmopolitan western provinces. The five Jerne children seem to have been accepted at once, however, and a neighboring girl recalls that they were "very interesting children" since they spoke a foreign language at home.
Niels Kaj began in the local Fröbel school but was later transferred to the regular community school. His memories of the three years in Assen occur "in a non-ordered, episodic way": he remembers drawing pictures and braiding rugs and busying himself with puzzles: "Oh, I loved these puzzles, they were of celluloid, and I also had one of wood, in the shape of an elephant." He also has several strong memories of the grassy meadow behind their home. Many years later, he remembered how he and a schoolmate once had taken off their pants, kneeled with their buttocks in the air, and even though they were afraid to be caught, stuck twigs into each other's rectums "quite deeply, back and forth"; six months later, both boys had appendectomies and he also remembered connecting the illness with this forbidden experience. But the meadow also framed his clearest memory of happiness: "The grass is tall and yellow, taller than me. I am a child. My friend Wim will have difficulty in finding me here in the field. I am perfectly happy."
Hans Jessen Jerne must have managed the bacon factory well, for in 1920 he was hired as director of a cold-storage warehouse and freezing plant in Rotterdam, newly erected as a midpoint for the import of South American meat and its distribution in Germany. Once again it was time to move. Whereas countless Europeans had lost their illusions during the war, the Jernes had let it provide the groundwork for their continuing financial security. They could afford a big house with servants in Rotterdam's new and fashionable Kralingen district, a costly automobile (a Belgian Minerva), and summer holidays in rented houses at the coast.
The earliest direct archival traces of Niels Kaj's life originate in these holidays in the form of picture postcards and letters to family members who stayed home. Both these greetings and the later interviews bear witness to a seemingly harmonious childhood home. Niels Kaj's favorite among the siblings was Emily (or Baby, as she was usually called); he also got along well with the two oldest children, Thomas and Karen. With Elsa, the middle girl, it was otherwise. He "always hated [her], all the way back." She had "no sense of humor," he felt, and she was "power-hungry" and much too quick to judge other people, not least himself. "You are so small, you can't understand such things," Elsa is said to have remarked scornfully to her little brother. She measured up to Niels Kaj intellectually and remained the only one in the family who, her whole life through, would offer any opposition. Their intellectual equality and their rivalry remained a source of irritation and mutual sarcasm. Late in life Jerne told a scientific colleague that "the reason I would like to be a Nobel laureate is to show my sister, whom I never liked, that I was somebody."
It was the positive memories of his early years in Rotterdam that predominated, however. He always remembered his parents' marriage as harmonious and loving; even their long engagement was included in his reminiscences. He relates, for example, how he sat and listened when his mother played the piano and sang an old Danish folk song (he sings from memory):
'Twas on a Saturday evening I sat awaiting thee 'Twas on a Saturday evening I sat awaiting thee; I love you so sincerely, but you didn't come to me I loved you so sincerely, but you didn't come to me.
He remembers how, even as a child, he was moved to tears when she played that melody, "because I think she waited for him six years or so, before he came back." Otherwise, Mama does not come up so often in his recollections; she emerges as more of an appendage to the father than an independent person: "She didn't play a crucial role, I think ... she didn't really participate."
It was Papa, as he continued to call his father throughout his life, who played the leading role in his memories. Jerne's spontaneous life story is replete with anecdotes about a loving and caring father, a father he looked up to and wanted to please. When asked whether he had ever been punished, he answered emphatically: "No, never, no. Yeah, I beat my own son, but he [Papa] never beat me, no, no." The family photos of Papa show a slightly chubby man with round cheeks, a large nose, and a jolly smile; he was a man with great technical talent and imagination, but also a man with both feet on the ground, "a solid West Jutlander, without pretensions but with a sharp sense of realities," as a Danish newspaper wrote on his fiftieth birthday. Jerne described his father as a person with social ambitions, a self-made man who achieved financial and social success on the strength of his inherent qualities. In our conversations he brought out the contrast between himself and his father. Papa was a leader; he "sort of dominated": "I am much more timid.... There are some Danes who, in an advanced age, become typical leaders, and wise and gentle and so. I don't belong to them [but] my father belonged to those, who have a charisma of authority. People believed him when he said something," he says, adding, "and that is not true with me."
Papa had a quality Jerne would admire to the end of his life, namely, that of being a grand old man: "The man who everybody respects, the pater familias.... He never criticized anybody.... They were all welcome, everybody, no matter whether they were intelligent or stupid or so, that played no role at all. He just was generally liked as a wonderful person to come to." Nor did Jerne feel he had lived up to his father's example in this respect: "I did not inherit that [quality]." So, while his mother was more or less invisible in his autobiographical writings, Papa became a personality whom Niels Kaj looked up to but felt he did not resemble.
The Jerne family was not actually atheistic-like the other siblings, Niels Kaj was confirmed-but their home hardly evidenced any religious influence; his mother once told him that she did not know "whether or not God exists." Being Danish was more important. Papa was a central figure in the Danish community in the Netherlands, and as time went by the family's ethnic origin would gain in importance for Jerne's autobiographical image. His feelings about his origins were strengthened during the family's annual summer vacations with his paternal and maternal grandparents in Jutland. As he matured, his consciousness and passions revolved around urbane culture, great cities, opera houses, good restaurants, the tokens of modernity; aesthetically, urbanity was the air he breathed. But when he talked about his origins, his thoughts went not to England or the Netherlands-"it's too confusing to accept as your roots"-but to the fishermen on Fanø and the millers in Jutland, just as if he needed this secure, traditional platform for his own excursions to the centers of modernity. "Just because I have led such an unsettled life," he said in an interview, "I yearn back to my origins. I have to know where I come from."
Excerpted from Science as autobiography by Thomas Söderqvist Copyright © 2003 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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