Molecular Biology

“The century of biology upon which we are now well embarked is not matter of trivialities. It is movement of really heroic dimensions, one of the great episodes in man’s intellectual history. Do not be fooled into thinking this is mere gadgetry. This is the understanding of life.”

Warren Weaver

The high point of the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) program in the natural sciences was its initiative in molecular biology, which ran from 1933 to 1951 under the leadership of Warren Weaver. By the early 1930s, the RF had logged more than a decade of remarkable support for and progress in the physical sciences. It had helped build infrastructure in both physics and chemistry through direct grants to universities and research institutes, as well as extensive fellowship programs administered through the National Research Council (NRC) and the RF’s own International Education Board (IEB). The molecular biology initiative, however, made an unprecedented and innovative contribution to the development of science. Its essential idea was that the better-developed tools of physics and chemistry could be applied to the as-yet-unanswered questions of the life sciences.

Finding Middle Ground

Weaver advocated heavily for the development of a molecular biology initiative. After joining the RF in 1932, Weaver quickly moved to define the mission of the newly established Division of Natural Sciences. Though a mathematician by training, he was well aware of recent technological advances in physics and chemistry, and he believed the Foundation could distinguish itself by promoting similar advances in the biological sciences.

As he later explained, the physical sciences had successfully addressed both “problems of simplicity” involving limited variables, and problems of “disorganized complexity” involving billions of variables calculable in theoretical terms. But the life sciences represented a middle ground of “organized complexity” in which a medium-sized number of variables could not be separated from each other because the research question was biological. A watch spring, he illustrated, could be removed from its casing and studied for its own properties, but a human heart could not be similarly removed from a living organism.[1]

Building upon a network of institutional and personal contacts in the scientific community fostered by the IEB in Europe and the General Education Board (GEB) in the United States, Weaver and his staff proceeded to identify researchers whose work crossed disciplinary boundaries and to persuade them to tackle biological research. The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the Universities of Copenhagen and Uppsala in Europe received major grants as part of the new initiative.

Vital Essences

Throughout the early 1930s, the Division of Natural Sciences (DNS) coordinated its efforts with the Division of Medical Sciences (DMS) because both were ultimately concerned with bodily processes, including metabolism, genetics, disease, viruses, and cellular development. To avoid redundancies in program focus, the two divisions aimed instead to create a comprehensive “science of man” that would also contribute to the RF mission adopted in 1928: “the advance of knowledge.” By working together, they hoped to address the ill-defined relationship between the biological and the psychological–in short, to figure out as much about people as science had already discovered about physical matter. As Weaver asked, “Why do we seem to know so much more about atoms than we do about men?”[2]

Trying to clarify the rationale behind technology transfer from the physical to the biological sciences, Weaver initially named the program “vital essences,” then later “experimental biology.” In 1938, having seen new technologies enable increasingly minute units of measure, Weaver coined the term “molecular biology.”[3] As he explained, this new hybrid science disputed the long-held view that “man as a conceiving, child-bearing, thinking, behaving, growing and finally dying organism presented problems that were in great part outside the range of rational analysis.”[4]

Molecular biology fit neatly within RF’s customary approaches on a number of fronts. First, it was top-down science, involving invisible particles, a trained eye, and reliance upon precise and elaborate technologies. Second, it examined parts in order to understand and eventually to affect the larger whole. Third, in contrast to endowing entire institutions, funding molecular biology research could be achieved through smaller, targeted grants that fit within the Depression-era climate of belt-tightening. And fourth, it represented a managerial perspective that relied on educated hunches, strategic investments, and shrewd oversight.

Science Along Particular Lines

Progress shot forward at a lightning pace as the RF’s interests and funding helped shape research agendas. Major efforts supported by the Foundation, in addition to Linus Pauling’s work on chemical bonds, included George Beadle and Edward Tatum’s work on how genes govern metabolic processes, Alfred Kuhn’s work in evolutionary developmental biology, Boris Ephrussi’s work on the regulation of embryological processes, and Otto Warburg’s study of the fermentation of sugars in the development of cancer cells. DNS funds also supported research on photosynthesis, vitamins, and radiation therapy for cancer.

The rapid pace of progress poised government and industry to fund the bulk of molecular biology research by the 1950s. Weaver himself was the architect of the Foundation’s exit plan, urging the RF to turn its attention to the more applied endeavors of agriculture, which could mobilize molecular biology’s contributions to plant breeding in direct service to ending hunger. Notably, however, the operating program of agriculture was housed within DNS because it continued to rely on scientific research.

The RF set the stage for molecular biology to become a central focus of the scientific establishment in the late twentieth century. In the 1980s and 1990s, with other agencies largely covering the food distribution programs the RF pioneered in the 1960s, the Foundation was able to return to funding pure science with its International Program in Rice Biotechnology (IRPB).


[1] Warren Weaver, A Quarter Century in the Natural Sciences (New York: The Rockefeller Foundation, 1958) 7-10.

[3] Warren Weaver, “Molecular Biology: the Origin of the Term,” Science, CLXX  (November 6, 1970): 581-582.