Degeneration in Miniature: Cell Death and Aging Research in the Twentieth Century

Lijing Jiang Arizona State University 2012-2013 Dissertation Research Fellow

My dissertation tells a twentieth-century history of scientific investigations on cell degeneration, including cell death and aging. One important chapter is about American microbiologist Leonard Hayflick’s discovery that cultured human diploid cells isolated from fetal tissues would stop dividing after a sustained period of active proliferation. Hayflick eventually proposed such cessation of human cell division in cell cultures as a sign of aging manifested outside of human body and at the cellular levels that became the starting point of now celebrated research about in vitro cell aging. Before coming to PACHS, I have researched published scientific literature and interviewed Hayflick to construct the skeleton of the story. During my visit at PACHS, I found a number of important resources at the Wistar Institute, the American Philosophical Society, and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. They fleshed the Hayflick story out with crucial details and background information. I have used some of these resources in my dissertation finished in August 2013 and will continue to use them while revising my dissertation into publications at Princeton University and the Konrad Lorenz Intitute. The Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology is the place where Hayflick made the discovery of cell aging in vitro in the late 1950s. The institute hosts its scientific reports with volumes published biennially. These volumes of reports usually start with reviews from the directors, followed by scientific reports from members of the scientific staff within the institute. Hayflick had published throughout his tenure at the Wistar Institute until he left for Stanford University in 1968. His reports showed the initiation, development, and expansion of his cell aging research with changing rationales and methods. These reports also showed the expanding research of cell aging at the Wistar Institute, with additional reports about cell aging from Vincent Cristofalo, who was enrolled as a scientific staff member in 1963 to study the biochemistry of cell aging, as well as from visitors such as Álvaro Macieira-Coelho. Some of Hayflick’s research reports provide information about research rationales and methods that were not revealed in published scientific articles. Particularly, in the volume published for 1958 and 1959, Hayflick elaborated on his original plan of using human fetal cells to study whether viruses cause cancer, which he did not follow up because cell aging soon captivated his attention. This detailed plan of research on cancer was not described elsewhere and provides crucial information for my dissertation to capture Hayflick’s intellectual shifts in the late 1950s. The 1958-1959 biennial report also used one of the cell strains Hayflick isolated, WIHL (Wistar Institute Human Lung), as a cover story, demonstrating the importance of Hayflick’s cell cultures within the institute. While the reports Wistar Institute help reconstructing the scientific process and the institutional background of Hayflick’s research, resources at the American Philosophical Society offer tangible information about the larger background of studying aging and cancer through cells in the twentieth-century US. Most illuminating is a typescript of 217 pages of Herbert Spencer Jennings’s series of lectures titled “Problems of Life, Age an Death in Single-cell Animals, in Relation to General Theories of Life and Death” he gave at Indiana University in 1943. In the lecture series, Jennings discussed the problems of life stages, conjugations, and cell divisions in relation to aging and death of Protozoa. He emphasized the environmental factors that contrasted with Hayflick’s emphasis on an internal clock that controls cell aging. Jennings’s correspondence with Canadian cytologist Edmund Vincent Cowdry about organizing workshops and conferences on aging in the 1930s and 1940s were also in the collection. In these letters, Cowdry discussed about the formation of a committee about the biological processes of aging, various conference-related issues, and the editorial processes of his edited volume Problems of Ageing whose first edition was published in 1939. The American Philosophical Society also hosts relevant collections about the organizations of cancer research in the first half of the twentieth century. In Alexander Hollaender Papers, one can find extensive correspondence between Hollaender and geneticist Hermann Joseph Muller about organizing a conference in the 1950s about radiology and its relation to cancer therapy and research. Peyton P. Rous Papers are a treasure trove of manuscripts and correspondences discussing whether viruses cause cancer. Rous’ organizing efforts for the 1958 conference “The Possible Role of Viruses in Cancer” sponsored by American Cancer Society were also well documented, for which the then director of the Wistar Institute Hilary Koprowski was an active participant. In addition, the American Philosophical Society hosts a collection about Warren Lewis, the director of the Wistar Institute before Koprowski. Lewis collection contains copies of scientific reports of the Wistar Institute before 1958. Lewis also studied the cellular behaviors in cultures and established a Motion Picture Project that recorded these cellular behaviors and made the films of these records available for sale. The detailed records of the Project are preserved in the collection and provided an institutional background to explain why Hayflick also made a number of films recording cellular activities in vitro in the 1950s. The Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia offers extensive records of conferences on aging from the early 1950s to late 1970s held within US and internationally. These records helped me depict the developments of gerontology when Hayflick was advocating cell aging research. They usually include talk abstracts, list of organizers, participants, and funding agencies, and often highlight the themes in gerontology that were considered important at the time. From the changing topics in these conferences, one can clearly identify that cells became increasingly important as a topic for aging research. Funding of aging research also became more specialized during the period. For example, the 1954 symposium on problems of gerontology in New York City was funded by National Vitamin Foundation that did not seem to have direct relevance to aging research. In 1978, when a workshop was held in Bethesda, Maryland, its funding was from a dedicated National Institute on Aging (NIA), and the whole workshop was assigned a specific goal to discuss about the “likely directions for further development of the NIA.” The American development of aging research definitely raised public attention as well. In 1958, the Philadelphia Federation of Women’s Clubs published a pamphlet called “Wheretofore Gerontology” which can be found among the personal clips of Mrs. Edward L. Bauer at the College of Physicians. Bauer, then the chairman of the committee on Gerontology Board of Trustees from the Lutheran Home at Germantown commented on the medical, industrial, religious, and governmental developments of gerontology. She concluded, “Today citizens in every walk of life are interested in gerontology” and “THEREFORE GERONTOLOGY (sic).” The PACHS Dissertation Research Fellowship enabled me to discover the vital scientific, institutional, and cultural references needed for depicting the process of the emergence of in vitro cell aging in the 1950s and 1960s. I also benefited greatly from the discussions at the Medicine and Health working group, the interactions with colleagues at PACHS during the “beginners’ lunch,” and enjoyed the opportunities to learn about other PACHS scholars’ work.