This blog is part of the ‘Blog a Book project entitled: The Inside Story –– a history of the Microbiology Department (University of Otago) from 1950 – 2010. Blogs are usually shown in reverse chronological order (from newest to oldest). For a ‘Blog a Book’ the posts are changed to be chronologically displayed (from oldest to newest) as one would in reading a book. Click on the building image in the upper left corner of this blog post to navigated to the beginning of the ‘The Inside Story‘..
The first priority for starting my postdoc at UC Berkeley was to find a place to live that was close to the UC Berkeley campus. We were directed by the University Accommodation Office to a new housing development in Richmond (an adjoining Bay city). Richmond was predominantly a ’black’ area and the Federal government, as part of the urban renewal plan, had built a housing estate which was to consist of 60% blacks, 30% whites and 10% others — to avoid it becoming another black ghetto. These were still the days when blacks were expected to sit at the back of the bus. Upon arriving at the office of this housing estate we were greeted with open arms since it meant that if we took a place, they could house two more black families. We were offered the pick of the bunch. The units were two-bedroom duplexes with adjoining garages, a front lawn and a fenced back yard. They were tasteful designed with polished concrete bench-tops and solid walls. Our neighbor was a fireman with wife and two small kids.
Most of the people in the community where professional families: teachers, nurses, social workers. In general, it was the women of black families that had jobs while the men odd-jobbed or otherwise occupied their time with children and ‘hobbies’. This was the time of the Black Panther Party and the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement. One evening we heard a loud knock and upon opening the door this huge African American who filled the entire door frame asked if I wanted to buy a copy of the Black Community News (the Black Panther newspaper) — I said yes, I would have bought his entire stock if he asked. One of the Party’s famous leaders was Eldridge Cleaver, who spoke at a Yippie Rally on the steps of Sproul Hall on Oct 30, 1968 to a crowd of thousands about the Free Speech Movement, opposition to the Vietnam war, the current political situation and the rise of Black Power. He later disappeared before his scheduled return to prison for the remainder of his 1958 rape conviction. He and his wife, Kathleen fled to Cuba then Paris and eventually to Algeria. (To put this into context: Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.)
(Eldridge Cleaver speaking at Sproul Hall)
As well as these challenges on the political front there was the ‘cultural revolution’ — the hippie lifestyle: free love, drugs, sex, music, a new way of thinking — the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Although the lyrics of the opening song in the musical Hair (1967) were considered to be ‘astrological gibberish’ nonetheless the concept of the Aquarian age spread to young audiences around the world. The musical Hair defined the hippie culture. The musical’s profanity, its depiction of the use of illegal drugs, its treatment of sexuality, its ant-Vietnam war, its irreverence for the American way of life and its nude scenes set the stage for the hippie counterculture. (For those that want to travel along memory lane – here is an excerpt.
All this was a very potent psychological and emotional brew and those who lived through it could be easily recognized as being permanently ‘bent’. In the previous year (1967) as many as 100,000 people converged on the Haight-Asbury neighborhood of San Francisco for the ’Summer of Love’. Activities such as these became defining moments of the 1960s, where ‘ordinary citizens’ began to question everything about themselves and their institutions.
Back to my postdoc at UC Berkeley – The campus was beautiful and spacious — the south entrance to the campus was through Sather Gate at the north end of Telegraph Ave and Sproul Plaza headed on its east side by Sproul Hall, the neoclassic administration building – the site many of the student protests.
The building in which I worked was called the Molecular Biology and Virus Laboratory Building. When it was built in 1952 in the gothic Soviet-Bloc Cold War style it was called the Biochemistry and Virus Laboratory Building. It was later renamed to Stanley Hall after Wendell Stanley, who won the Noble Prize in Chemistry (1946) for his work on TMV (tobacco mosaic virus). C Arthur Knight was one of his co-workers and it was in Knight’s lab that I did my postdoc.
The building was later demolished and a new Stanley Hall was opened in 2007. It became one of the newest buildings on campus and housed the Bioengineering Department, along with 40 research labs affiliated with the multi-campus California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences.
Lab space in C Arthur Knight’s lab was at a premium and I shared a bench with another postdoc Leon Lewandowski. We struck up a great research partnership. He had just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and knew of the recent discovery that reovirus particles (dsRNA) contained an RNA-dependent RNA polymerase. I was carrying out some work on an insect virus that was also double-stranded RNA. The Question: Did it contain a similar RNA polymerase? After a crash course in how to rear this virus in silkworms we were able to get enough data to publish two papers on the properties of this insect virus RNA polymerase (CPV – cytoplasmic polyhedrosis virus of silkworms)
Leon was an interesting character, his mother wanted him to become a priest and would call him almost every day – sometimes in the lab – to ask how he was and why he didn’t call her. Leon knew how to hustle (negotiate) and various bits of equipment would appear in the lab, ‘liberated’ from disuse from other parts of the building. This included things like a Beckman ultracentrifuge, chromatographic gear and electrophoresis apparatus. Arthur Knight, a gentleman scientist and elder statesmen, did not officially approve of such behavior, but secretly admired Leon’s initiative and told me that he was someone that would go far.
Later Leon studied medicine and spent most of his career in Pharmaceutical Medicine/Pharmacovigilance (Drug Safety). He now runs Senior Health Services (SHS) – a NY State pro-bono “Charity”, providing homecare visitation services to fulfill the critical role of helping older folks oversee their pharmaceutical needs. As Leon tells me: this is the closest he will ever get to his Mom’s dream of ‘her son, the Priest’.
Throughout the time spent at UC Berkeley there were a series of protests on campus. By and large we avoided the picket lines and the charges by storm-troopers since our Laboratory was located at the north end of the campus and we could ‘sneak in to work’ but there were major disruptions to classes and the normal student activities. The protests were similar to that of the guerrilla tactics used by the Vietcong— disrupt then melt into the surrounding student population. Activists would ‘occupy a building’ disrupting normal activities — the authorities would send in the storm troopers — the activists would blend in with the students — meanwhile another ‘occupation’ would occur at the other end of the campus.
The People’s Park Incident
In the April – May period of 1969 a group of people loosely allied to the Free Speech Movement wanted an area near the south entrance to UC Berkeley where they could hold rallies and hang out. They decided to use some corporate land owned by the University of California, which was used as a parking lot and turn it into the People’s Park.
On Sunday, April 20, more than 100 people arrived at the site to begin building the park. Local landscape architect Jon Read and many others contributed trees, flowers, shrubs, and sod. Free food was provided, and community development of the park proceeded. Eventually, about 1,000 people became directly involved, with many more donating money and materials. The People’s Park was essentially complete in mid-May.
However, Ronald Regan, California Governor who had been publicly critical of university administrators for tolerating student demonstrations at the Berkeley campus decided to intervene. He considered the creation of the park a direct leftist challenge to the property rights of the university, and an opportunity to fulfill his campaign promise. He called the Berkeley campus “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants. A major confrontation ensued between police and the crowd, which grew to 4,000. Initial attempts by the police to disperse the protesters were not successful, and more officers were called in from the surrounding cities. Governor Reagan declared a state of emergency in Berkeley and sent in 2,700 National Guard troops. The residents of Berkeley protested and 30,000 marched in a demonstration. The photo below shows a line of guardsmen closing off the streets near the People’s Park.
Going to New Zealand
I remember that it was a glorious sunny day in spring (April). We were having a picnic at the beach in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The kids were playing in the sand, the surf was gently rolling in, the bridge was shrouded in mist, and all was well with the world. We had decided to explore going to New Zealand since we heard from our neighbors at the housing estate of the beaches, the climate and the relaxed pace of life. It was reputed to be a great place to bring up kids. We were beginning to get weary of the racial tension and social unrest and worried about the effect this was having on us and the kids. I wanted a place to slow down and relax from the hectic pace of the last few years.
I decided to try for an academic position since I enjoyed working at a university, carrying out research, teaching students and being the conscience and social critic of society. I did what is probably unthinkable today — I wrote: a Do-you-have-any-jobs?-letter and enclosed my CV. For further details of how I arrived in New Zealand see the blog posting of the talk I gave at my farewell dinner.