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Some Anecdotes about ASN members

by William T. Norton

C.F.B.: Do Neurochemists, as a group, have a well developed sense of humor ? Some biologists have claimed that most "Chemists" take themselves and their work much too seriously and consequently fail to appreciate the ridiculous, the absurd, the inane, the incongruous and the ludicrous events and coincidences in life. Some of today's speakers have already shown that this claim does not fit them. Now Bill Norton will demonstrate, with just a few of his notorious anecdotes, that many ASN members have a highly developed sense of humor when they view the lives of other members as well as their own.

Some Anecdotes about ASN members - William T. Norton

Doyennes of Basic Protein: During the late 1950s and early 1960s several investigators were trying to identify the encephalitogen responsible for inducing experimental allergic encephalomyelitis (EAE). The most prominent were Elizabeth Roboz Einstein (married to AlbertEinstein's son, Hans Albert) at Berkeley and Marian Kies at NIH. Both had effective preparations but it's probable that Elizabeth's early isolates were mostly not myelin basic protein and Marian's were. They collaborated briefly at one point, but they were always competitors.

The sixth meeting of the ISN was held in Copenhagen, August 1977, and a Satellite meeting on myelin was held in Helsinki the following week. During the meeting in Copenhagen Jorgen Clausen, the local host, had some evening buffet suppers at his home. At one of these Elizabeth cornered me and insisted I sit and eat with her. She spent the better part of an hour telling me what a bad, dishonest person Marian Kies was and how she was slandering her. Jump to Helsinki the following week. When I arrived at the hotel there were three or four women neurochemists in the lobby, among them Marian Kies. They were discussing Elizabeth and were worried that she hadn't shown up yet. They knew her schedule and she was very late. They were concerned because she was traveling alone and was getting a bit forgetful and distracted. Just then Elizabeth walked in. There were joyful greetings and hugs and kisses all around, with Marian and Elizabeth in the warmest and longest embrace. They were, after all, members of the same myelin family.

Freud, Woody Allen and some Neurochemists: The setting is Vienna after the third ISN meeting in Budapest, 1971. My wife and I visited Freud's office-museum. We had not been there long when Ed Eylar walked in. Ed had just recently determined the complete sequence of myelin basic protein the hard way, by degrading peptides one amino acid at a time. He, together with our former ASN president George Hashim, had also synthesized the encephalitogenic peptide. Thus he was quite well known at the time. Ed and I talked about the ISN meeting and the pleasures of Vienna while my wife wandered off to the other side of the room to look at exhibits. There were also a number of young people standing around. As we were talking a small, mousy, unprepossessing man walked in with a tall beautiful blond on his arm. Ed and I realized he looked very familiar but couldn't place him. We wondered who this neurochemist was with the beautiful Blonde? Then both of us realized: "Damn it, that's Woody Allen!" At the same time my wife, who was standing next to two young men, overheard them say " Look over there - that's Bill Norton and Ed Eylar".

Extra benefits of NATO workshops: The setting is Milan sometime in the 1970s. Rudolfo Paoletti of the Pharmacological Institute in Milan, Italy organized a two-week NATO workshop that stressed techniques of neurochemistry. Many prominent researchers, such as Jordi Folch, Derek Richter (a middle-aged and distinguished English gentleman-scholar), Kuni Suzuki and Alan Davison were there. My job was to demonstrate how to prepare myelin (every day for ten days). Another demonstrator was George Rouser, a lipid chemist from the City of Hope Medical Center in California. George was quite well known for his quantitative thin-layer chromatographic techniques He published these in great detail and emphasized the importance of not smoking cigars when you spotted a plate.

We all stayed in one small hotel near the Institute. One morning at breakfast George told us that a very strange thing happened to him during the night. He had come in late and the night clerk said something to him in Italian. George said "yes, fine", thinking the clerk had said something trivial like "did you have nice dinner", and then went up and went to sleep. A short time later a woman knocked on the door ready for her assignation. George was flabbergasted, surprised and angry. George said, "I tried to get rid of her. Finally I had to pay her to get her to leave." At least that's what he said. We commiserated with George about his rough night.Derek Richter had been at the hotel alone for a few days. The next day his wife arrived. Apparently the night clerk was not aware that his wife had checked in. In the evening Derek and wife went through the lobby and up to their room and went to bed. They were sound asleep when the clerk burst into their room and in rapid Italian berated Derek for bringing this prostitute into the hotel and cheating the clerk out of his pimp's commission. Rudolfo was notified and the clerk was fired immediately.

Staid(?) English Consultants: In 1967-68 I did a sabbatical with Alan Davison, then Chairman of Biochemistry at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School, London. When I arrived he was studying neuropathies in roosters given some organophosphorus compounds. Naren Banik was a student in Alan's lab at the time and may have been involved in this project. Alan had this rooster who was partially paralyzed and asked one of the attending neurologists to examine the bird. The neurologist, Gerald Parsons-Smith, was a product of an English Public School (Harrow, I believe), and an Oxford graduate with offices on Harley Street. He dressed elegantly and was elegant. But with good humor he did his best to check out the rooster's reflexes. The next week Alan and I went across Chandos Place to the hospital for our usual three-course lunch for three shillings sixpence in the consultant's dining room. As we walked into the rather crowded lobby, with patients sitting around and several nurses walking about, Gerald Parsons-Smith saw us from the other side and shouted in his very plummy accent "Ho, Alan how is your paralyzed cock doing ?"

Serving the Society: The fifth meeting of the ASN was held in New Orleans on March 10-14, 1974. The program committee for that meeting was chaired by Stanley Appel and included Claude Baxter, Bill Norton, Maurice Rapport, Eric Shooter, Lou Sokoloff, Ted Sourkes and Kuni Suzuki. In the fall or late winter of 1973 the Neurology A and Neurology B study sections met during the same few days in Bethesda, Stan Appel and I were on Neuro-A and Maurice Rapport was on Neuro-B. Stan had by this time collected all of the abstracts for the 1974 meeting. He decided it would be a great idea if he, Maurice and I would meet in Lou Sokoloff's office at the NIH sometime during the study section meeting and sort the abstracts into categories. In other words, to organize the program.

So one night after a good dinner and adequate alcohol the four of us met and began to throw abstracts onto piles according to topics. There were-250 abstracts; the evening grew late and we grew groggy. Finally we were left with only one; "Adaptation by the Pocket Mouse to Space Flight Environment During the Apollo 17 Mission to the Moon", by J.M. Ordy,K.R. Brizzee and W. Haymaker. No one could suggest a proper classification. Eventually either Lou or Stan said "Transport!" and the work was done.

This abstract was the first one in the session "Transport and Relevant Enzymes" chaired by Claude Baxter and Phil Swanson.(p.18 of the 1974 Transactions of the ASN, text on p.92.) Rumor has it that the authors were not amused.

Comment by Claude F. Baxter:

The rumor was almost correct. The authors came to me before the session to tell me that some "idiot" (or they used a word to that effect) had classified their paper in the wrong category and they really did not belong in the session. They asked me to do something about it. And I obliged.Since theirs was the first paper of the session, I assured them that they would have a session all to themselves. So when I opened the session on "Transport and Relevant Enzymes" I announced with a straight face that we would first have a one paper session on "Space Transport", to be followed by the regular session on the program. The rather small audience accepted this without any visible amusement and the paper was presented. As I recall it, there was only one slightly irrelevant question and the authors departed peacefully. I do not recall seeing them at any subsequent ASN meeting.

Another Anecdote. This one about Jordi Folch-Pi by Claude F Baxter

One spring in the early 1960's Jordi Folch came to Southern California to attend some meeting but also, if possible, to do some skiing in the local mountains. So early, the morning after the meeting, Jordi and I drove to a ski area in the San Bernadino Mountain Range known as Snow Summit. We arrived early and were among the first customers to be hauled up the mountain by the chair-lift. The warm days and cold nights had left the ski slopes covered with a crust of ice that the sun had not yet melted.

Making his first run down the slopes, Jordi sped ahead of me with great vigor and was soon out of my sight. I proceeded more cautiously on this first run, having some difficulty making turns on the icy surfaces without a lot of side-slipping. I reached the bottom of the mountain (the get-on point for the chair-lift) just as Jordi completed his second run down the mountain. As we rode up the chair-lift together (for another run) I asked: "Jordi, how do you manage to maneuver and make your turns on all that ice ?" His reply was immediate and without hesitation. "Claude", he said in his breathless Catalan accent, "it is ALWAYS a BIG mistake to try and turn on ice ! ... I just schuss across it and worry about turning later." (Jordi's snow covered pants suggested that, on an unfamiliar slope, that "turning later" had come at a price).

Reflecting upon this incident some years later, I was struck by the way Jordi's attitude towards skiing on ice defined the man and his character and the way he led the ASN in the early years of its existence: with absolute self confidence, single-minded and usually in a hurry. Jordi never minded being unique and independent in his thinking, pronouncements and actions.He was willing to take a risk or a responsibility, as long as the outcome led to his goal. To put it in a nutshell: Jordi was his own man while skiing and when he led the ASN.

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