Personal Reflections on a 9/11 Hero

I originally wrote this remembrance of my high school classmate 10 years ago, on September 11, 2006, at Terra Sigillata on It has appeared in various forms on several sites, but this is the only place where you can still share your comments.


Let me tell you about John Michael Griffin, Jr.

Griff, as he was known in high school, was a friend of mine.

Late in the first half of our lives, he stood up for me physically and philosophically, for being a science geek. John’s endorsement was the first time I was ever deemed cool for wanting to be a scientist.

Griff died an engineer and hero in the collapse of one of the World Trade Center towers five [15] years ago today.

We lost touch almost twenty years before, but his kindness and friendship formed not only one of the cornerstones of the scientific life I have today, but in the person and father I have become as well.


At a northern New Jersey Catholic high school in a predominantly Irish town, being a gangly Polish boy from two towns over was not the formula to cultivate one’s popularity or self-preservation.

Throwing the curve in biology and chemistry classes didn’t help either, nor did being a David Bowie fan in a place where Bruce Springsteen was as revered as St. Patrick. That’s probably where the nickname, “Zowie,” came from – the name of the glam rocker’s first child.

Worse, I had skipped a grade in elementary school, and being a year behind physically was not compatible with self-preservation during high school gym class.

But, it was a very simple gesture, sometime in junior year, when one of the packs of scoundrels had me cornered, slamming me against the wall and throwing my books down the hallway. I believe that the offense was that our biology teacher had taken to buying me a Pepsi every time I scored 100 on one of his exams, and I had been enjoying yet another one.

John, already well on his way to his adult height of 6′ 7″ or 6′ 8″, stepped in and said, “Hey, lay off of Zowie. He’s goin’ places.” And with that, the beatings stopped.

I didn’t play sports, at least not any of the ones offered by our school. At that time, soccer hadn’t taken off in the States but I was a huge player and had met John at Giants Stadium in the NJ Meadowlands where I had season tickets (Section 113, row 7, seat 26) for the relocated New York Cosmos. At just $4 a ticket for kids 16 and under, I could afford season tickets to see some of the greatest international soccer stars of the late 20th century: Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, Italy’s Giorgio Chinaglia, Yugoslavia’s Vladislav Bogiçeviç, and, of course, Brazil’s great Pelé.

All accounts of John as an adult include his devotion to the Giants, NY Rangers, and NY Yankees, but few recall those soccer days. John’s family were long-time Giants season ticket holders and probably got their Cosmos season tickets three rows behind me as some sort of promotional giveaway. I recall that John was surprised that a science dork such as I would be cool enough to know about soccer and come to games myself, my father dropping me off outside the gates so he could go home and watch his beloved football games.

But, we Jersey boys loved soccer at a school where American football and basketball reigned supreme. Many Saturday and Sunday afternoons were spent at the massive stadium during soccer’s American heyday of the late 1970s, with crowds of 50,000 – 75,000 that have yet to be matched today.


Among John’s gifts was the ability to make anything fun and to make anyone laugh. I recall sitting with him in a ski lodge in Amsterdam, NY, as I was recovering from frostbite during an ill-prepared class trip ski weekend. He pulled me into an imaginary board game with a napkin dispenser, where he pretended each napkin contained a message as to how to proceed during each turn. We looked at each other in horror when the waitress came unannounced and cleared our table of the napkins.

As a teenager, John was a physical caricature, handsome but a goof, self-effacing but self-confident, and had a clever and caustic wit, both of which he carried into adult professional life and fatherhood. His 15 Sept 2001 missing notice in the Bergen (NJ) Record noted that schoolkids called him, “Barney,” to reflect how they flocked to his presence.

No one was safe from John’s good-hearted and bombastic comedy routines. My father was nicknamed, “Groucho,” by John due to the resemblance of his thick mustache to that of the 1930’s comedian – John would burst spontaneously into seemingly classic Marx Brothers riffs, but with the content imitating my father carrying on about some printing press mishap.

My last remembrances of John are half a life away, from the impromptu high school graduation party he called at my house to his pride at finishing his engineering degree and managing facilities for a million-square foot building in Manhattan.

Perhaps he protected me as a kid because he knew that way deep down, he was destined to become an engineering geek himself. And a hero, a much bigger hero, in protecting the lives of others in a very real way.


On the glorious fall morning of 11 Sept 2001, I was fixing coffee for my wife who had been sleeping in when the newsreader on my pager announced that a jet had struck the south tower of the World Trade Center.

I had missed my recent 20-year high school reunion and had not known that John had only months before been appointed director of operations at the WTC by Larry Silverstein’s, Silverstein Properties.

I did not learn until two weeks later that John had facilitated the escape of dozens of workers, handing out wet towels so people could breathe on their way down the stairs. In the 102 Minutes book by New York Times writers Jim Lynch and Kevin Flynn, John is immortalized in the corroborated account of the elevator rescue of 72-year-old Port Authority construction inspector, Tony Savas.

When he returned to 78, Greg Trapp saw a group of three Port Authority employees at work on the doors to the elevator where Tony Savas, a seventy-two-year-old structural inspector, was trapped. Trapp peered into the small gap and saw him, a man with thinning white hair, seemingly serene. One of the workers grabbed a metal easel, wedging the legs into the opening, trying to spread the doors from the bottom, where they seemed to have the greatest leverage. But their efforts had the opposite effect at the top of the doors, which seemed to pinch tighter.

At that moment, John Griffin, who had recently started as the trade center’s director of operations, came over to the elevator bank. At six feet, eight inches tall, Griffin had no problem reaching the top of the door to apply pressure as the others pushed from the bottom. The doors popped apart. Out came Savas, who seemed surprised to find Griffin, his new boss, involved in the rescue. Savas seemed exhilarated, possessed of a sudden burst of energy, rubbing his hands together, or so it seemed to Trapp.

“Okay,” Savas said. “What do you need me to do?”

One of the Port Authority workers shook his head. “We just got you out-you need to leave the building.”

No, Savas insisted. He wanted to help. “I’ve got a second wind.”

John and Mr. Savas stayed behind.

John’s wife, June, sweetheart of the class behind us, was quoted in John’s NYT, Portraits of Grief:

“He was at the back of about 30 people they were evacuating,” his wife, June Griffin, related from the accounts of survivors. “He had been in fires before — he should have gotten out.”

Mrs. Griffin speculated that her husband, instead of running for the exits, headed for the fire control center, where his training as a fire safety officer would have directed him. “He was an engineer,” Mrs. Griffin said. “He must have thought, ‘Buildings don’t just fall down.’”

John also left two daughters, both now teenagers, his parents, a younger brother and older sister, and literally hundreds of friends.

Not just any friends, either – anyone who knew John still says that when he talked with you, it was as though you were the most important person in the world.


Leaving New Jersey in the mid-1980s and running on the tenure-track treadmill 1,600 miles away caused me to stop living life and lose track of a great many friends. I am deeply saddened not to have known John as an adult, a devoted husband and, by all accounts, a remarkable father.

Since John’s death, we’ve all found a little more time in our schedules to make time for one another. As the father of a little girl conceived in the months after the terrorist attacks, I try to respect June’s privacy and just send little gifts for the girls every so often. I cannot imagine how they and nearly 3,000 other families deal privately with the most public of tragedies.

I finally worked up the guts to go to Ground Zero [ten years and] two months ago for the first time. Despite all the bickering about what the memorial should look like, there is a small memorial area set up in the interim. John’s name sits at the top of one column of names on the placards commemorating those lost.

He’ll always be at the top of my list.

2012 Postscript

This picture also appeared in 2011 when John’s younger daughter, Julie, now 20, was interviewed for the Waldwick (NJ) Suburban News by Jody Weinberger.

Julie’s memory of the events that took place on 9/11 is spotty. She was a fourth-grader at Crescent Elementary School when relatives came to take her and Jenna home.

“It was kind of chaotic,” Julie recalls, sitting on a stool in her kitchen. “Even though people were saying things, I didn’t know what they were talking about. I didn’t know what terrorism was and not even adults could really grasp what was happening.

“My grandpa came up to me and told me bad people did something to where my dad worked and that’s all I could really grasp at the time.”

After discussing her father’s rescue of Mr. Savas, Julie shared more of her mixed feelings:

“But then I think he actually went back to help more people and I think that’s when the buildings collapsed,” Julie said. “I was kind of angry knowing that he went to go save other people instead of thinking about coming home to his family. That bothered me but now I know he’s a hero.”

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Julie thinks about just some of the many moments she’s missed not having her father around.

“People think that it’s just the anniversaries, birthdays and holidays, and it’s true, those really are hard times, but every day [you have to] keep your head up and think positive,” she said. “It’s little things like learning how to drive and applying for college, or my first day of college that you just kind of wish he was there for, and you just have to keep going, I guess.”

Julie feels that by going after her dreams – which currently means graduating from the University of Tampa and pursuing a career in elementary education – she is making her father proud.


That Facebook post from June was from 2012. In 2013, we heard directly from Julie Griffin in a brave article she wrote for the national website of Kappa Alpha Theta, “Overcoming tragedy with the help of my sisters.”


Postscript – 2016

Next Friday, September 16, 2016, many of us are gathering at St. Mary High School in Rutherford, New Jersey for Griff Rocks On, an annual fundraiser to honor our fallen hero that provides tuition assistance for SMHS students in need. June, my sister, Sandi, and my classmates have formally established John Griffin 9/11 Foundation as a 501(c)(3) organization. We’d love to have any of you attend, celebrate John’s life and dance and sing to the B Street Band, a Bruce Springsteen cover band. Regardless, and if you’re so inclined, tax-deductible donations can be made to the Foundation at the PayPal button below. For more information, please visit


What does it take to knock off K2 Spice readership?

Just the other day, I wrote about how DrugMonkey and I have experienced unprecedented and sustained blog traffic for posts we wrote in February on K2 Spice, one of a couple of marijuana-like “incense” products still sold legally in the United States.
Every morning, I dial up my SiteMeter blog statistics and take a look at what posts readers first land upon when coming to visit the humble world headquarters of Terra Sigillata.
Last week, 2,700 to 2,800 of the 4,000 most recent hits were landing on our February K2 Spice post. (You will also note below the sad state of my readership in that posts on Stiff Nights erectile dysfunction supplement and Horny Goat Weed products are the next most popular direct hits.)
Finally, one post has knocked it out of the top spot after nearly four months:
Monday’s post about the memorial unveiling of the gravestone for Henrietta Lacks this past weekend.
Henrietta Lacks knocks off K2 Spice.jpg
I have been completely overwhelmed by the interest in this story. This widespread attention would not be possible without the Facebook and blog referrals by author Rebecca Skloot, The New York Times Science page, and the enthusiastic Twitter referrals by other writers who I respect greatly such as David Dobbs, Sara Goforth, Mike Rosenwald, T. DeLene Beeland, Ted Winstead, scribbler50, Eric Ferreri, – as well as the dozens of you sci/med bloggers and folks from other walks of life who found this post worthy of recommending to your friends.
Please accept my apologies if you were not mentioned by name – I don’t have Bora Zivkovic’s flair for aggregating and linking to every referral but you have my gratitude for further popularizing the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family.
And for those of you so inclined, here are images of the memorial program that weren’t included in the last post:

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What’s my poison? Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, author, professor Deborah Blum

The Poisoner's Handbook.pngThis is going to be a quick welcome to Deborah Blum (@deborahblum) who has just moved her blog, Speakeasy Science, to ScienceBlogs.
Why quick?
Because I am only 22 pages away from finishing her latest book, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. This engaging tale of the race of science and medicine against chemical poisonings for profit and punishment features the true story of NYC chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler. Of course, the other actors are arsenic, methanol, chloroform, thallium, and radium, among others. In the teens through the mid-1930s, long before benchtop atomic absorption spectrophotometry and LC/MS instruments, Norris and Gettler devised methods to detect poisons in human tissues with high sensitivity. These advances led to the prosecution of some, the absolution of the wrongly-accused, and revealed that our own government poisoned citizens who dared to challenge Prohibition.
Blum’s colorful biography accounts somewhat for her fixation with insects, chickens, monkeys, and chemistry, a discipline she pursued at Florida State University until setting her braid on fire and switching to journalism at the University of Georgia.
Blum won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting in a newspaper series that led to her book, The Monkey Wars, about the ethics and polarization of primate research. A couple of books (Sex on the Brain, Love at Goon Park, and Ghost Hunters) and a plethora of writing assignments since, Blum now holds an endowed chair at the University of Wisconsin and as the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism.
But before I learned of her award-winning writing, I first came upon Deborah Blum as co-editor (with Mary Knudson and Robin Marantz Henig) of A Field Guide for Science Writers, the official guide of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). The guide was recommended to me by Tom Linden, MD, when I joined the graduate advisory board of his medical journalism program at UNC-Chapel Hill in his attempt to give a scientist some background on the profession.
Regular readers know that I am a huge fan of the history of science and medicine, so you can probably understand why I can’t wait to get back to reading The Poisoner’s Handbook. I was also originally trained as a toxicologist and published one of my first papers on heavy metals effects in the kidney before I moved to the discipline that chemicals are best used for therapeutic benefit. Hence, I am honored to now be writing under the ScienceBlogs masthead with a wonderful writer who has been one of my inspirations and with whom I share several passions.
But while I offer I warm welcome to Deborah Blum, a part of me also wants to warn those in her real life not to leave their beverage unattended in her presence.

Cytogeneticist Dr. Janet Rowley receives AACR Lifetime Achievement Award

The 101st Annual Meeting of my primary professional society, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), convened in Washington, DC, on Saturday and will run through Wednesday, April 21. The theme for this year’s meeting is “Conquering Cancer Through Discovery Research,” and focuses strongly on the translation of discoveries into cancer treatments.
Although the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic dust cloud has delayed many European participants, over 17,000 attendees are expected at the Washington Convention Center where over 6,300 presentations are to be given.
AACR was founded in 1907 by 11 eminent physicians and scientists of their time and while “American” is in the name, AACR is truly an international organization.
Seven years ago, AACR instituted their Lifetime Achievement Award in Cancer Research. This year the award went to one of my heroes of cancer research, Dr. Janet D. Rowley of the University of Chicago. Dr. Rowley is best known for her work in the 1970s on chromosomal abnormalities in human cancer, specifically the translocation that involves the “Philadelphia chromosome” and led to the drug to target protein kinases, imatinib (Gleevec or Glivec).
AACR posted a five-minute interview with Dr. Rowley here and I’ll describe some history afterwards.

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Sir James Black (1924-2010) – Physician, Pharmacologist, Gentleman

Have you ever taken one of the now-over-the-counter heartburn relief remedies like Tagamet, Zantac, or Pepcid?
How about the beta-blocker atenolol (Tenormin) or metoprolol (Lopressor) for antihypertensive therapy, or the original less-selective beta-blocker propranolol (Inderal) for migraines, presentation anxiety or stage fright?
Sir James Black - David Levenson Rex Features.jpgIf you answered yes to either question, you owe a debt of gratitude to Sir James Black, the Scottish physician who left us earlier this week at age 85. The best obituary I have seen memorializing Sir James comes from the UK Telegraph.

Black was called the father of analytical pharmacology and was said to have relieved more human suffering than thousands of doctors could have done in careers spent at the bedside. Certainly, no man on earth earned more for the international pharmaceutical industry.
Yet though he became joint winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988, Black derived little personal financial benefit from his discoveries. Among businessmen he had a reputation as an irascible maverick and this prickly independence, combined with an antipathy to big institutions, led him to flounce out of jobs whenever he felt corporate short-sightedness was getting in the way of research.

Others can be read at The Independent, The Times, The Guardian, The Scotsman, and BBC News.
It is rare for a scientist to discover one drug that makes it to market. Sir James not only led the discovery of two major drugs, propranolol and cimetidine. As if that were not enough, each drug was a “first-in-class” agent, the first approved drug that acts via a novel mechanism of action.

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What’s the difference between HeLa and HeLa S3 cells? Part III: Theodore “Ted” Puck, PhD, and the first clonal isolation of human tumor cells
This post is the third in a series on the origin and history of HeLa S3 cells. The first post details how I came about to ask this question when launching my independent research laboratory. The second post details the life and careers of the legendary physician-scientist pioneer, Dr. Florence Rena Sabin.
Today, we take up a discussion where we will finally learn the origin of HeLa S3 cells, complete with original literature citations.
A recap
We left our previous discussion with the final and still-productive years of Dr. Florence Rena Sabin. After graduating from Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1900, Dr. Sabin embarked on a nearly 40-year career at Hopkins and now-Rockefeller University, elucidating the developmental origin of the lymphatics and antibody responses to tuberculosis and training a generation of physician-scientists. She was truly a pioneer, becoming the first woman to be appointed to faculty at Johns Hopkins, their first female full professor, the first female full member (full prof-equivalent) at Rockefeller, and the first woman invited to join the National Academy of Sciences.
Upon her retirement in 1938, she returned to her native Colorado to join her sister, Mary. Near the end of World War II, she was tapped by the Colorado governor to lead a committee that would address existing public health issues in the state that would have to be solved while absorbing a large number of men and women returning from the war to civilian life. Although in her 70s, Sabin was highly effective and shared the 1950 Lasker Award for Public Service. In 1951, the University of Colorado School of Medicine honored her with the dedication of the Florence R. Sabin Research Building for Cellular Biology.
That same fall was a sharp contrast for the Virginia-born tobacco farmer, Henrietta Lacks. She, too, was spending time at Johns Hopkins. But in this case, it was because her life was being cut short at age 31 from an aggressive case of cervical cancer.
In the months before her death on October 4, 1951, cells derived from her tumor had been successfully cultured in the Hopkins laboratory of Dr. George Gey. These cells were called HeLa, so named for the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’s names, and took a place in history as the first human cell line to be continually propagated in culture. They would live on in laboratories not only at Hopkins but around the world, including that of Colorado geneticist, Dr. Theodore “Ted” Puck.
From bacteria and bacteriophage to human genetics
Puck from Rowley obit.jpgTed Puck came to Colorado a few years earlier. His 1994 autobiography in the American Journal of Medical Genetics tells you far more than I can here. Here he shares his situation before the Sabin Building became available:

On my arrival in Denver in 1948, I first became aware of the magnitude of the responsibility which I had undertaken. The total contribution of the medical school to the budget of the Department of Biophysics was $5,000 per year. All the rest was to come from grant funds. I was the only faculty member in the newly formed department which was required to present a major course to the medical students, to institute graduate training leading to the Ph.D. degree in biophysics, to conduct a post-doctoral training program for
M.D.’s and Ph.D’s, to conduct a significant research program in biophysical science, and to raise the necessary grant funds for those activities. An old unused lumber room in the basement of the medical school was cleaned out, painted, and transformed into offices and a laboratory for the department.

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What’s the difference between HeLa and HeLa S3 cells? Part II: The life and careers of Florence Rena Sabin, MD

This post is the second in a series on the origin and history of HeLa S3 cells. The first post can be found here. In this post, we discuss the life and careers (yes, careers) of the remarkable physician-scientist, Florence Rena Sabin.
“Too bad you’re not a boy, you would have made a good doctor.”
Sabin birthplace home Central City Smith College collection.jpgFlorence Rena Sabin was born in the mining town of Central City, Colorado, on November 9, 1871, two years after her sister and lifelong companion, Mary. Florence’s father. George Sabin, had moved from Vermont to Colorado in the midst of the Colorado gold rush and a notable 1859 gold strike between the towns of Central City and Black Hawk. Her mother, Serena (Rena) Miner (yes, Miner), was a Vermont school teacher in Savannah, Georgia who moved sight unseen to Black Hawk to respond to an ad for a schoolteacher. (This photograph of their home, like many in this post, are derived from The Florence R. Sabin Papers, freely available from the National Library of Medicine’s Profiles in Science Collection.)
If you’ve driven I-70 from Denver International Airport to any number of Colorado ski areas, you have passed a highway specifically built to bring you to these two former mining towns for a different kind of gold: limited stakes casino gambling.
Tough, hardscrabble living in the mountains led the family to move to Denver while Mr. Sabin continued to work in the mining business. Sadly, the girls’ mother died in childbirth in 1878 and George Sabin enrolled his daughters in a boarding school called Wolfe Hall, where both would later teach. Mr. Sabin recognized how deeply the girls were devastated by the loss of their mother and his long absences didn’t help matters. The girls were sent to live with their uncle Albert in Chicago – though not the Albert Sabin of poliovirus vaccine fame. He brought them to visit and then ultimately live with their paternal grandparents in Saxtons River, Vermont.
I belabor this issue because it was then that Florence’s grandmother remarked that one of their ancestors, Levi Sabin, had been a doctor and her father had attended medical school for two years before moving to seek his fortune in gold. Observing Florence’s love of nature and biology, her grandmother remarked, “Too bad you’re not a boy, you would have made a good doctor.”
Florence apparently took this statement as a challenge, vowing to become a doctor anyway. She finished school in Vermont and attended Smith College where she was befriended by the school physician, Dr. Grace Preston. Preston took an interest in Florence, cultivating her interest in biology and chemistry and advising her about a new university in Baltimore whose medical school would be accepting women owing in part to an unusual turn of events.
Money talks: how wise women influenced a new medical school
Founder of that eponymous university, philanthropist Johns Hopkins, had counted on income from B&O Railroad stock to establish the medical school and recruit faculty. (N.B., the peculiar extra S was because his first name was actually a family surname – source.) However, the 1890s were economically volatile times and Hopkins only had funds to open the hospital but not the medical school. As documented in the history of the university, four daughters of the university’s original trustees offered to help, with conditions:

Martha Carey Thomas, Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Elizabeth King and Mary Gwinn, all unmarried, wealthy, well-educated and devoted to the new feminist movement – offered a deal. They would raise the $500,000 needed to open the school and pay for a medical school building, but only if the school would open its doors to qualified women. Arguments ensued, the pragmatists won out, and the women were given the go-ahead to try.
When the money was in hand by Christmas Eve, 1892, the Women’s Fund Committee added a strategic twist, making new demands that even the staunchest opponents of a coeducational school could not reasonably refuse. Garrett – who as daughter of the head of the B&O was able to donate about $350,000 to the effort herself – presented a list of stiff entrance requirements that would have to be met by any Hopkins applicant, male or female: proof of a bachelor’s degree, proficiency in French, German and Latin, and a strong background in physics, chemistry and biology. Hopkins’ leaders were taken aback; most of the demands appeared to have been lifted directly from an early letter by [first professor and dean, William Henry] Welch to University President Gilman – suggestions that even Welch, after he hired on, admitted he thought were impossible goals.

Yes, medical school standards varied widely at the time and these “impossible goals” pushed forward by the women established the new institution as one of the best in the United States.
To understand the prevailing attitude toward women in higher education, the following were the 1874 comments of Gilman’s colleague Charles Eliot, president of Harvard University, who called coeducation “a thoroughly wrong idea which is rapidly disappearing,” Hopkins trustees had Gilman call upon Eliot as a consultant on this issue:

“[S]tudents might fall in love, which could produce disastrous, socially unequal marriages; women would have trouble keeping up with the academic pace and hold up instruction for the men; the stress could prove so severe that the women might fall ill and destroy their chances of good marriages; and finally, a woman’s future was so different from a man’s that there was no point in educating them together.”

Thumbnail image for Sabin Smith College graduation.jpgUnfortunately, George Sabin’s mining company in Denver was also suffering financially for many of the same reasons that the Hopkins railroad investments delayed opening of the medical school. The 1890s were volatile economic times not to be matched until The Great Depression. As such, Florence could not afford to attend medical school after graduating from Smith College in 1893 (her senior picture is shown to the left) and would have to assume financial responsibility for any future education.
As a result, Sabin came back to Denver to teach at Wolfe Hall, where her sister Mary was already working since her own graduation from Smith two years earlier. In 1895, Florence returned to Smith to teach and then received a fellowship during the summer of 1896 to work at the renowned Marine Biological Laboratories at Woods Hole on Cape Cod.
With these experiences and now-sufficient savings, Sabin was able to apply and be accepted to Johns Hopkins Medical School for the 1896-97 academic year. Exemplifying the commitment of Hopkins to training female physicians, Florence was one of 14 women in a class of 45.
Sabin book American Women of Achievement.jpgWhat follows from her remarkable career is detailed at numerous sites on the web including a 1960 National Academies Press biography, the National Library of Medicine, and the Rockefeller Archive Center. But I detail these early life influences here because they are not widely accessible outside of archives at Smith College and the Colorado Historical Society and are covered only briefly in the 1960 National Academies biography. I learned most of the preceding story from a remarkable out-of-print 1990 book from a 50-book series entitled, American Women of Achievement. Written by New York freelance writer, Janet Kronstadt, this 101-page volume on Sabin can be purchased used on Amazon for only a few dollars, roughly the same cost as shipping.
The book and websites above chronicle the rest of Sabin’s remarkable life of medical achievement and public service but I’ll provide some of the highlights as follows.

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What’s the difference between HeLa and HeLa S3 cells? Part I: Launching the lab

Sabin Rockefeller portrait croppedWhen I first started my independent academic laboratory in 1992, it was in a brand new facility across the parking lot from a then 40-year-old building named in honor of the woman to the right. I took on a big teaching load from day one and while I had some cash left from the $50,000 start-up package, I didn’t hire a technician immediately. So it fell upon me to do all the ordering of the basic supplies to get the operation rolling. No problem, right? I ordered much of my own stuff as a postdoc so it should be no problem to get everything I need to start the lab from scratch.

One of the most common buffers used in molecular and cell biology labs is “Tris,” short for a base called tris(hydroxymethyl)aminomethane. By adding different amounts of hydrochloric acid to it, you can create buffers from pH 6.8 to pH 9 so it’s pretty versatile.

So, I opened the old Sigma catalog (this was when companies were only just starting to get their catalogs online). There were five varieties of Tris and nine varieties of Trizma®, Sigma’s brand of Tris base (there are now six and 15, respectively).

So which do I order? The ACS reagent grade >99.8%, the JIS special grade >99% or do I go for the BioUltra Trizma?

But the Bioultra Trizma comes in two forms, one for molecular biology and another for luminescence. I definitely needed a molecular biology grade tested RNase-free that I could also use for cell culture.

Hmmm, how ’bout the “Biotechnology Performance Certified, meets EP, USP testing specifications, cell culture tested, ≥99.9% (titration).”

And so, for each chemical I needed to start the lab I had to go through and evaluate why I needed one form over another, and what the difference was between all of the terminology.

When it came time to bring in the cultured cell lines for my work, I decided that I was going to start all of my cultures from an original, traceable stock obtained directly from a cell repository instead of the more common practice of soliciting colleagues around campus for hand-me-downs of their established lines. You never know where someone’s cells have been, how long they might have been passaged, whether they have been cross contaminated, or if they have latent mycoplasma infections.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 250pxSo I knew I needed HeLa cells – those ones we’re hearing all about these days from Rebecca Skloot’s New York Times-bestselling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, about the 31-year-old rural black woman whose cervical carcinoma gave rise to the first immortalized human cell line.

The two most common vendors for original cell culture stock are the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC) and the Deutsche Sammlung von Mikroorganismen und Zellkulturen (DSMZ), or German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures. There are others, including major national research institutes, and dozens of other vendors have modified cells for a variety of specialized uses.

ATCC is a private, non-profit organization that traces its roots back to 1925 when scientists realized a need for a central laboratory that distributed certified strains of microorganisms. If you isolate your own cell line that you wish to make available to the scientific community, you can deposit it with ATCC and they will handle requests for it from other investigators, using sales fees to support their operation.

Not only does ATCC serve as a central repository but it also contributes to the continuity of the biomedical research enterprise. I had a physician-scientist colleague a few years back who was closing his research lab and moving to private oncology practice. But he had developed a series of very useful drug-resistant clonal populations of two, common human leukemia lines. These are very useful cells for investigating why cancer cells develop tolerance to drug therapy but since there would be no one left to distribute them, he deposited them with ATCC (example).

OK, so back to 1992: I open the ATCC catalog (again, before it was online) and, hmm, you’ve got HeLa cells (catalog designation CCL-2). Great. Let’s order ’em up.

But then there are also HeLa 229 (CCL-2.1), and HeLa S3 (CCL-2.2).

Hrumph. I just want some freakin’ HeLa cells – what’s up with these other ones? They all kind of look the same, all from the same woman, all grown in the same medium.

So what the difference?

In her Los Angeles Times interview last month, Skloot remarked that the Lacks book began with a manuscript she was planning to meet the requirements of her MFA at the University of Pittsburgh:

“I was in class, and I got out a piece of paper and I wrote at the top ‘Forgotten Women in Science,’ ” she remembers. She planned to do 12 essays. “Number 1, I wrote Henrietta Lacks, and then I was like, hmmm.”

So over a series of posts this weekend, I wish to tell you about a woman in science indirectly related to HeLa cells. She may not necessarily qualify as a “forgotten woman of science” but her story is perhaps not well-appreciated today because her contributions occurred so long ago.

Florence Rena Sabin, MD (1871 – 1953), a daughter of a Colorado coal mining family, became a female pioneer in medicine and public health. With the simple notation of “S3” she is forever linked to the first clonal population of these cervical cancer cells from the poor Virginia tobacco farmer.

Image credit: Sabin color portrait from Women in the Rockefeller Archive Center

Virginia Williams: “If I were your daughter, I wouldn’t be here for this”

Younger readers and readers outside the southern United States may not completely grasp my preoccupation with the Jim Crow segregation era “sit-ins” over the last several months. These non-violent acts of civil disobedience in the 1950s and 60s challenged the “separate, but equal” provisions for public facilities that were upheld in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson US Supreme Court decision and continued more than a decade after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Buses, trains, waiting terminals, restrooms, water fountains, and areas of private businesses were kept separate for whites and blacks (usually labeled as “colored” to ensure uniform discrimination against African Americans of mixed ancestry.). This US National Park Service website provides a sampling of such laws from various states.
The 50th anniversary of the most famous of these sit-ins in Greensboro, NC, has given the opportunity for today’s major news outlets to revisit these days and examine what has and hasn’t changed, especially in light of the election of the first black US president (who, incidentally, wrote this letter for the Greensboro News-Record a couple of weeks ago).
Virginia Williams cropped.jpgSo after writing last night’s post about Christine Hardman’s essay on the February 1960 visit to Durham by Martin Luther King, I was delighted to see this morning’s local fishwrapper celebrate Ms. Virginia Williams as “Tar Heel of the Week,” a weekly feature of the News & Observer that acknowledges individuals and their various contributions to the state. Ms. Williams is one of two surviving students from the earlier and increasingly-appreciated 1957 Royal Ice Cream sit-in in Durham, a story I wrote about in November when the sit-in site was dedicated as an historical landmark. (To the right is a photo I was honored to take with her on the day of the dedication.).

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The Reverend and the Rabbi: Martin Luther King, Jr., on science and religion


From “Lesser Known Wise and Prophetic Words of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.” by liberal writer and California Democratic Party delegate, Deborah White:

“Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values.
The two are not rivals. They are complementary.
Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.”

When I posted this quote two years ago, Right Wing Professor Gerald Gerard Harbison commented that some of the passage was taken from the writings of Rabbi Hillel Silver as noted at John Lerwell’s Spiritual Unity blog.
Writer and documentary filmmaker Tom Levenson then wrote a superb post, as is his style. Levenson analyzed the two passages, noting that Harbison had cherry-picked 66 or the 724 words for comparison, and dissected how the rabbi and the reverend approached the topic very differently:

More to the point, King actually makes a quite different claim than Silver. Silver’s argument, as represented in the Lerwill excerpt is an early version of the “non-overlapping magisteria” kind — Silver writes, for example, “There was never any real conflict between religion and science as such. There cannot be. Their respective worlds are different, though not in opposition. Their methods are dissimilar and their immediate objectives are not the same.”
King skipped all that part (and this kind of stuff is scattered through the Lerwill version). Instead, he focused on what he presumably felt was the nub of the issue: that science and religion have important points of connection.
That’s arguable too — and certainly, plenty of folks in the science blogging community find the notion anathema. But King did not follow Silver down the road of intellectual apartheid, an agreement to reserve certain matters for the exclusive authority of one side or other.
In music there is an old notion (now legally enshrined, I believe) that a repetition of more than a few notes of a passage is an actual act of imitation. Less than that, and it is presumed that there is a kind of musical language that everyone gets to speak. Maybe the four word phrase “Science investigates; religion interprets” crosses the line. But King had his own mind, and said something quite different than did the source of at least some of his expression.

I’ve looked long and hard to find cases where Dr. King held forth on science. But his values can clearly be applied to the scientific realm, particularly as it relates to recruitment and engagement of underrepresented minority groups in the STEMM disciplines.
Our ScienceOnline2010 session held yesterday sought to bring Dr. King’s spirit of inclusion and education equality into the realm of social media. An issue I raised there but did not develop was that a great many of my science students, particularly of Hispanic/Latino or southern US African-American backgrounds, cite their religious beliefs as a primary motivator in pursuing a health sciences or pharmaceutical research career. Rather than religion being at odds with the scientific method, they feel that their faith fuels their desire to apply the scientific method in the name of relieving human suffering. The duality of religious beliefs and hypothesis-driven inquiry is certainly an intellectual challenge but one that I respect.
I welcome any King scholars in pointing me to any other discussions where the civil rights leader discussed issues of science.
Photo credit: Library of Congress, believed to be in the public domain