It was a matter of contention among microbiologists as to whether Arthur Zabalka had been born without a sense of humor or had lost it at some time during his early childhood in the Bronx. People who had known him as a student at the Bronx High School of Science say that he didn't have a sense of humor at that time. He was a real anomaly in a tribe where a sense of humor comes with the circumcision. His life was his work and his work was his life -he had no time to play. As a student he studied constantly, despite the fact that he could have gotten A's in everything without half trying. Since he had an encyclopedic memory, anything that entered his fabulous brain stayed there. It was rumored among his colleagues that he never forgot a favor or an injury. Fortunately, his skin was thick enough so that he was hard to injure. People made subtle remarks about him, but they had no effect. Since his mind retained everything, he was reluctant to let anything painful in so, while he remembered everything that he read, he ignored any remark that had no informational content.
Nick Tarkas was one of the few people who genuinely liked him, and it was reciprocated. While Tarkas needled him shamelessly in public, he would never say anything behind his back that wasn't laudatory. He appreciated the quality of Zabalka's work, the brilliance of his mind and the tenacity of his friendship. Other people tolerated him because he was one of the best; and being one of the best, he was also fairly powerful. He sat on several of the committees that dispensed funds, so no one wanted him as an enemy.
Nick Tarkas had a theory about why Zabalka always managed to be at center-stage of any group that he was in. He said that it had to do with the fact that his name started with Z in an alphabetized world, in which Zabalka had to wait his turn in school for Applebaum, Jones, Smith and Yergin. By the time his turn came, everything would have been said. So Zabalka learned to summarize eloquently and ,when possible, to capture the stage early, and hang on to it.
From The Bronx High School of Science Zabalka had gone to Columbia where he majored in what was then called bacteriology. He was readily admitted to their graduate school where he studied viruses. From there he went to the Rockefeller Institute as a post-doctoral Fellow.
He turned down the chair of microbiology at Harvard in favor of a small research institute in Philadelphia where he was allowed complete freedom to do as he pleased and had virtually no administrative responsibilities. He had said that "you can't be an administrator and do Nobel quality research at the same time."
He had trained at the Rockefeller during the tenure of Alexis Carrel who had received the Nobel Prize for his work on tissue culture in 1912. Carrel was the center of his laboratory. His laboratory was painted black and his technicians wore black surgical gowns and caps -Carrel wore white. Zabalka ran his own lab in much the same way as Carrel did. He was its center -its star- and every one else's efforts went to the greater glory of Arthur Zabalka. His technicians, who worked hard and long for him, never got as much as an acknowledgment in his publications. A colleague of Zabalka's once asked why he didn't acknowledge his assistants and secretaries in his publications. He replied, "why should I? They get paid for their work." The colleague pointed out that he, Zabalka, also got paid for his work. From then on, Zabalka included acknowledgments in his publications.
The factotum of Zabalka's laboratory was a forty five year old man named David Green, who had been with Zabalka for almost twenty years. He was a highly intelligent and competent man who had never finished high school. He was well paid and received a good deal of recognition only from Zabalka.
Green, not Zabalka, ran the laboratory. Zabalka planned the experiments and hired the people who performed them under Green's direction, while Zabalka went off to interminable international conferences.
Zabalka told Green to go to Buffalo and personally obtain the necessary specimens for culture and animal inoculation. Then he was to culture them and see what virus was present. He was to look especially for both polio and coxsackie. Green, in turn, told one of the many technicians what kinds of tissue cultures he would need in order to grow the viruses and she started them so that they would be ready when Green returned from Buffalo.
David Green looked somewhat older than his age. He was almost
bald and combed the wisps of hair that he had across his bald
spot, which made him seem balder than he really was. He was overweight
and had a pronounced belly. He had most of the skills required
to manage a technically complex laboratory. His hobby was electronics
and robotics and there was little that he couldn't build or repair.
He could have worked in the computer field and, perhaps, become
quite affluent, but he preferred the quiet life that he now led.
There was no one who told him that something had to be done right
away, nor that it had to be produced before the competition found
out. Zabalka knew what a gem he had and made sure that he was
well paid -at least for a research technician- and unhassled.
Once Zabalka had tried to speed him up. Green simply quit and
it took a lot of persuading, including a new title and a raise
in salary to get him back. Since then, Zabalka let him do things
at the pace that he wanted. If he felt the need to push someone,
he did not use David.
This morning, David took the tissue culture bottles out of the incubator and looked at them with a low-power microscope. The tissue culture bottles were medicine bottles that contained a layer of cells taken from the kidneys of rhesus monkeys. When a preparation containing a virus was added, the virus attacked the cells and left what looked like holes(called plaques) in the layer of cells. The shape and size of the plaques told him something about the virus that caused them. Similar cultures were made on thin pieces of glass, which were later stained. The virus caused changes in the cells on the glass which were also characteristic of the virus. He first examined the material that he had cultured from the bottles of R7001. It was not very exciting. He had seen the large plaques with their smooth edges many times before in cultures of polio, as well as a number of other viruses. The bottles isolated from the people who had Epidemic E had a different bug. The edges of the plaques were rough. This was not polio. But what was it? He took a bottle of both the polio and the EE isolates to Helen Sperry and asked her to run a battery of complement fixation tests on them. He took one of each type to John Novak and asked him to inject them into suckling mice. He told neither of the technicians what they might expect to find. That way there was less danger of someone giving him the results that he expected. Many years before, he had worked in a laboratory where it was the custom for the technicians to give their boss what he wanted -which The Boss promptly published, thereby cluttering the scientific literature with a lot of misinformation. This came about because The Boss was in the habit of berating his technicians if the results weren't what he expected.
That afternoon a batch of stained slides were brought to him. He examined them. It was certainly not polio. It looked a bit like Coxsackie, but it was not typical. He would have to wait for the results of the complement fixation.
At four, Helen brought the results of the complement fixation. She was apologetic, because the results were not like any that she had ever gotten before.
"These are great, Helen," he said. "When the boss sees these, he'll have an orgasm. These are just great!"
When Zabalka returned from a meeting in Paris, Green was ready for him. He took Zabalka into the laboratory and showed him the plaques in the tissue culture bottles and gave him the charts which showed what antibodies had inhibited the virus.
Zabalka realized instantly that this was the stuff of which Nobel Prizes are made, patted Green on the back and told him what fine work he had done. Then he indicated what confirmatory tests he wanted run and had his secretary type and Xerox the material that he would need at the meeting in Buffalo. When he had what he needed, he happily packed his bag and left for the airport.
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