Why did the FBI track down Nobel laureate microbiologist Salvador Luria?

Salvador Luria at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology around 1970.Credit: History of Science Images/Alamy

Salvador Luria: A biologist who immigrated to Cold War America RenaSelia MIT Press (2022)

The microbiologist Salvador Luria was a man of firm political convictions. The day before he won a share of the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, he spoke to Massachusetts state legislators, attended a peace rally at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, and joined in a protest against the Vietnam War. The FBI had begun monitoring him a few years after his arrival in the United States in 1940, fleeing fascist Italy. The Nobel did not stop them.

Luria shared the award with Max Delbrück and Alfred Hershey for research on bacteriophages, viruses that invade and often kill bacteria. This work paved the way for the fields of bacterial genetics, virology and molecular biology. Historian of science Rena Selya distills her story into her well-studied Salvador Luria.

Luria’s life began peacefully, in Turin, in northwestern Italy. Benito Mussolini came to power ten years later, in 1922, but the bourgeois Jewish family of Luria “lived passively” in the fascist regime. Luria got his first taste of research at the Turin medical school, in the laboratory of Giuseppe Levi, a cantankerous anatomist who knew how to pick his students. Renato Dulbecco and Rita Levi-Montalcini, who joined the lab the following year, also won the Nobel.

Luria excelled but was bored cataloging cells. Eighteen months of military service as a junior medical officer in Mussolini’s army discouraged him from practicing medicine. Instead, he was drawn to physics and the work of geneticists who used radiation to induce mutations in model organisms.

Thus, in 1937, Luria joined Enrico Fermi in Rome. In 1938 Fermi won the Nobel Prize for physics; that year, Mussolini introduced laws excluding Jews from public office and higher education. In December, Fermi and his Jewish wife traveled from the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm to America. Luria left Italy for Paris. There he learns how to grow bacteriophages and measure them using radiation.

In Paris, Luria also began his involvement with politics. He associated with other Italian refugees (including atomic physicist Bruno Pontecorvo, who later joined the US atomic bomb project but defected to the Soviet Union in 1950) and read Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and other. He is committed to socialist economic ideals. (Later, she became a feminist, living by the maxim “the personal is political” and sharing household chores equally with her wife.)

After the Nazis invaded France in May 1940, he fled Paris by bicycle, with Pontecorvo and others. Sadly, Selya provides only a brief sketch of this dramatic escape to the south of France, via Spain to Portugal, where he was eventually granted US immigration papers. She notes that the drama included being hit by planes and hiding out in an abandoned farmhouse with Italian writer Carlo Levi. From Lisbon, Luria traveled on a ship full of refugees, reaching New York City on September 12, with $52 in his pocket.

Within months, he had met and bonded with Delbrück, who was about to take up a position at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. The physicist turned biologist wanted to use bacteriophages in genetic research. In 1943, Luria landed his first tenured position, at Indiana University Bloomington.

During the 1940s, he and Delbrück revealed that some bacteria are resistant to phage attack. How the resistance was born, Luria settled on a simple and ingenious experiment inspired by the random jackpots of slot machines. She filled the test tubes with bacteria of the same strain and left them to multiply. Only a few of the pipes have become resistant to bacteriophages: Darwinian evolution in action. He and Delbrück developed the work into a classic article (SE Luria and M. Delbrück genetics 28, 491–511; 1943).

After the war, the US government invested heavily in basic research. Bacteriophages have become a key research organism. The field has exploded. James Watson, who would later co-discover the structure of DNA, became Luria’s graduate student, and Luria brought Dulbecco from Turin as a research associate.

Other discoveries followed. Luria showed that phages can mutate, sometimes in tandem with their bacterial hosts. She has shown that bacteria can sometimes render a lethal phage temporarily unable to infect other bacteria of the same strain, but still able to infect and kill other strains. Subsequent research showed that these transient changes were due to bacterial restriction enzymes that target short strands of DNA. Enzymes have become key molecular tools.

As Luria’s success grew, so did his political involvement. He has campaigned for racial desegregation and workers’ rights. He supported the Democratic candidates for Congress. He protested against biological and nuclear weapons. He lobbied for academic freedom when the House Un-American Activities Committee tried to force anti-Communist legislation on universities.

The FBI paid attention. Selya’s description of the United States during the Cold War bears uncanny similarities to communist East Germany. The FBI has recruited friends and colleagues to bring in dirt; Selya obtained the reports through the Freedom of Information Act. Most whistleblowers commented on Luria’s liberal mindset, but did not claim that he was a member of the Communist Party. The agency illegally monitored his post, writes Selya. The most suspicious were two letters from New York, signed “SA”. The sender? Magazine American scientist.

FBI officials interviewed Luria about Pontecorvo, with whom he had minimal contact in the United States. They questioned others about Luria’s loyalty, including physicist Ugo Fano, a childhood friend who had fled Italy in 1939 and helped Luria when he arrived (another section of the book where the brevity left me with questions) . In 1952, Luria was denied a passport to attend a scientific conference in Europe and to visit his sick mother. (He finally got one in 1959.) He was also barred from federal funding review committees.

In 1950 he had joined the University of Illinois, but its no-marriage policy meant that Luria’s wife, psychologist Zella Hurwitz, could not work there. When he won a place in Boston, Luria transferred to MIT. There he modernized the biology faculty and research took a back seat to administrative tasks.

One thing irked many of Luria’s distinguished colleagues in the 1980s: his criticisms of the proposed Human Genome Project. He feared that he might be abused for eugenic purposes. In an interview decades later, Watson called this evidence that Luria “cared more about politics than science” (ironic given the bias Watson is now infamous for).

Again, in a Nature obituary in 1991, Watson wrote of Luria, “there were few who did not feel better in his presence.”

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