Mahlon Hoagland: 1921-2009

September 25, 2009 · 3 comments

Mahlon Hoagland

He worked with James Watson and Francis Crick. He discovered transfer RNA and amino acid activation. He was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize. His name was Mahlon Hoagland, he passed away last week, and you have never heard of him. I had never heard of him until a series of unlikely circumstances brought us together thirteen years ago.

In 1995 I could see the writing on the wall foretelling the end of my biology research career. Companies were losing venture funding, R&D was being cut back, and I was about to hit the glass ceiling that still exists for scientists without PhDs. My last research gig at a biotech startup had ended (a story for a future post about how not to fire people), and I was working as an editor for MacTemps while I shopped my resume around. Again.

I received a placement request asking for someone with a scientific background who could also edit electronic illustrations created in Freehand. I said I could do the job, even though I had never used Freehand, and taught myself the program over the weekend before reporting for work. I learned I was working in the college science division of Mosby, a textbook publishing company, where I would be correcting illustrations for a new chemistry textbook. By the time I had completed that task – which took four months – I had impressed the editors enough that they offered me a permanent position, which I gladly accepted.

An offhand comment from my editor, Judy Hauck, permanently changed my career path. She was complaining about how much she had to spend on custom book illustrations with so little return on the investment. “There has to be a better way to circulate these illustrations to instructors; sending them out as 35mm slides is killing us.” I thought about it for a bit, then told her I’d come up with something. Within a week I had cobbled together a primitive image browser in HyperCard. A week after that, she showed the program to some instructors to gauge their level of interest. Within a month of her remark I had changed my title to New Media Editor, and had begun production of a professionally-coded version of the image browser.

What does any of this have to do with Mahlon Hoagland? Judy was his daughter. As we got to know each other by working together, she told me about her family. Her grandfather, Hudson Hoagand, co-founded the Worcester Institute for Experimental Biology (where the first oral contraceptive was developed by co-founder Gregory Pincus), and had been prominent in the nascent skeptics community in Massachusetts. This article, published in The Atlantic Monthly in November 1925, is a report on his investigation of Margery, a famous alleged medium who was exposed by Harry Houdini.

In addition to his tRNA discovery, her father, Mahlon, had been very active in science education. By the time I was working with Judy, he had retired but had just published a book, The Way Life Works, which was a life sciences answer to David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work. In collaboration with his friend, illustrator Bert Dodson, Hoagland managed to explain the basics of biology, biochemistry, and genetics in seven chapters organized by concept (Patterns, Energy, Information, Machinery, Feedback, Community, and Evolution).

Judy asked me to construct a web site to promote the book. With David Siegel’s Creating Killer Web Sites, a scanner, and a Mac Quadra 650, I managed to put together my first commercial site. It still looks exactly the same – no re-coding has been done – because it is appallingly primitive: just some tables, text, and a lot of graphics.

Judy’s next idea was to create a CD-ROM with interactive experiments based on the concepts and illustrations from the book. After talking it over with some game designer and programmer friends, we came up with the idea of building a proof of concept activity based on a section in the book about how bacteria search for food. By adjusting two sliders – run and tumble – you could adjust the efficiency of a bacterium’s food-seeking ability.

After two weeks of frenzied programming and testing, we had a prototype of the experiment module. Judy set up a meeting at which I would present the prototype to her father. I was terrified: How would this Nobel-nominated scientist react to our crude representation of his work? I made my presentation (on an original color Mac PowerBook), let him manipulate the controls, and then asked if he had any questions.

“How did you replicate the bacterium’s behavior?” he asked.

“Long answer, or short answer?” I replied.

“Short.”

“After the programmers read the chapter in your book, we used mathematical modeling to create a chemotaxis algorithm.”

That seemed to satisfy him, so we chatted for a bit before ending the meeting. It wasn’t until I looked at his book again that I realized I had seen him before, in one of Bert’s illustrations:

Blueprint

That was the last time I saw Mahlon Hoagland. We polished the design on the bacterium module, then Judy and I met with his editor at Random House in New York to pitch the interactive CD. The proposal was rejected (“Why would anyone want a CD like that?”), so I returned to my other textbook work at Mosby. The company was soon acquired by McGraw-Hill, where I languished as a developmental editor for three years before leaving to join a multimedia development company – the same company I had hired to create my image browser.

Judy left McGraw-Hill as well, signing on with Jones and Bartlett Publishing, where she developed Exploring the Way Life Works. Exploring was a study guide to Mahlon’s book, which was now being used in classrooms.

This entire story hit me as a nostalgic rush this morning as I read the obituary in the Boston Globe. I hadn’t thought about some of the people mentioned here in years; others have been constant collaborators since I met them in 1994. I still recommend the book to people; it has no equal. And that, perhaps, is the greatest tribute.

3 comments

Kurt September 25, 2009 at 5:56 pm

Nice piece, David. I never met him, but if the measure of a man is in his offspring, he must have been a champion.

Aimee September 25, 2009 at 8:24 pm

I didn’t know you knew him. I love his book(s)– one of the few that really talks about biology the way I see it, instead of as a huge pile of facts. RIP.

David September 25, 2009 at 11:21 pm

It’s the best biology book ever written, one of the best examples of how difficult concepts can be explained in a clear and entertaining fashion.

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