Jim Darnell: A Life in Science

Portrait of James Darnell by Birney ImesStory and Photographs Birney Imes

Emerging from the 68th Street/Hunter College subway station, one finds himself on Park Avenue amid the tasteful elegance of New York’s Upper East Side. Once “The Silk Stocking District,” so named for its affluent residents, this patch of Manhattan has been home to Rockefellers, Carnegies, Fricks, Kennedys, Whitneys and Roosevelts.

American capitalism is nothing if not dynamic, and those dynastic families of the 19th and early 20th centuries have given way to others. In their wake they left monuments bearing their names — art museums, libraries and universities. One of these is but a short walk from the 68th Street station.
Perched on the eastern edge of Manhattan in what appears to be a large, well-groomed city park is Rockefeller University (RU). Here in this wooded enclave more than 2,000 faculty, postdocs, technicians and administrators are immersed in their separate quests to know the mysteries of the human organism.

As an inconspicuous blue sign at the gate attests, these seekers have not been without success:
“Award-winning science: 24 Nobel Prize winners, 21 Lasker Award winners, 20 National Medal of Science recipients, … ”

Contributing to these totals is Jim Darnell, a tall, soft-spoken Mississippian, who deserves credit for essential discoveries about the way cells communicate, a seminal textbook on molecular biology and in part for the vibrancy of the institution that has been his professional home for the past 38 years.

For a child growing up in small-town America prior to World War II, contact with the larger world was limited. The Columbus of Jim Darnell’s boyhood was no exception. There were the stories grown-ups told on front porches, radio broadcasts of afternoon baseball games in faraway cities, newsreels at the movie theaters, books and newspapers, and the occasional family trip. Most had to be content with knowing only the world around them, a world they could see and touch.

Darnell was blessed to have a determined mother who understood the intellectual appetites of her precocious child. The Great Depression notwithstanding, Helen Darnell scraped the money together to buy her 10-year-old son a 15-volume set of Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedias. The boy spent hours immersed in the red cloth-covered books, exploring places and ideas far beyond his experience.

In the summer of 1943, and not yet a teenager, Jim ventured out into that larger world. His mother, pregnant with her second child, packed him off to St. Louis to stay with Aunt Lillian or “Big Sister,” as she was known to family. That summer in the city was one of revelation for Darnell. His aunt and uncle took him fishing in the Ozarks; a public pool was closed for the season after a black child climbed the wall and went swimming; and he visited the campus of Washington University.

Darnell was mesmerized by the school and its emphasis on science.

“That was my first inkling that there were scientists in the world,” he remembers.

Back home the following spring, Jim’s world flipped upside down. News that his father had embezzled funds from the bank where he worked hit the front page of the local paper.

Thirteen is an awkward and vulnerable age when embarrassments and perceived flaws are magnified, often beyond reason. The father’s shame had a searing effect on the son.

“I decided somewhere along the line I needed some hope of getting away from all this,” says Darnell, for whom the experience is still tender, almost 70 years later.

What could a 13-year-old do? Answer: what he had been doing all along, only better. Darnell continued making straight-A’s — he was the eventual valedictorian of his class. He wrote for the Lee High Mirror, the school newspaper, and played basketball and baseball. He was popular.

And then there was Georgia Payne Smith’s chemistry class.

A plainspoken country woman, Miss Georgia Payne came from Caledonia, then a dusty country town out from Columbus. “A Caledonia original,” Darnell calls her. By many accounts Smith was an exemplary teacher, who demanded and held the attention of her charges.
When she explained atomic structure, Darnell felt like he was hearing a new language for the first time, one for which he needed no interpreter.

“It was crystal clear to me,” he remembers.

“We didn’t know who Einstein was or care, but she made science fun,” he said of Smith. “She was a star in my background.”

Through his mother’s work — she was a nutritionist at Columbus Hospital — he became aware of local doctors, who were getting their medical training in schools outside the South.

Here was a way out.

One week after high school graduation, Darnell was enrolled in Ole Miss. Two and a half years later he emerged with a degree cum laude. For medical school, St. Louis and Wash. U. was an obvious choice, but for one thing: The family had little money and in Darnell’s words, the school “couldn’t tell if a kid from Mississippi was going to pan out.”

For the first year’s tuition, Darnell’s mother secured a $900 loan from the widow of a banker she had taken care of in the hospital. After that first year, no further tuition was required, so thoroughly did the young Darnell acquit himself.

As one of the few science-based med schools in the country, Wash. U. was a fortuitous choice. There Darnell ended up in the laboratory of Dr. Robert J. Glaser, his first important medical science mentor, injecting strep (streptococci, the cause of severe sore throat) into mice and then studying the effects of penicillin on the bacteria.

“I just loved working in the lab,” he said.

Photo of James Darnell and Claudia Mertens by Birney Imes

Dr. Darnell with Claudia Mertens, his chief research assistant for seven years.

Next stop was the National Institutes of Health where for four years he would do molecular studies of polio.
Then, in 1960, Darnell was awarded a fellowship at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. There he spent a year with his wife and their three young children while working in the lab of Françios Jacob, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in medicine five years later.

In Jacob’s lab Darnell seized upon RNA, the “messenger” molecule that facilitates communication between the genetic information (DNA) and genetic products (proteins) as the focus of his life’s work.

Here’s how Darnell sums up that chapter of his life in his 2011 book RNA: Life’s Indispensable Molecule:

Here I was, just turned 30, having done some journeyman work on an RNA-containing animal virus (polio) and having landed in one of only three places on the planet that knew the secret of information transfer from gene to protein.

Now, 50 years later, not a day passes that I don’t remember and reflect on my luck as a youngster just getting started.

Darnell returned to the States to research and teach at MIT, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Columbia before landing at RU in 1974.

Mississippi University for Women biology professor Ross Whitwam is well aware of Darnell’s contributions. “It’s a shame that science-famous is not quite the same as Hollywood-famous, but within the biomedical community, Dr. Darnell is quite a big deal,” Whitwam says.

“We acclaim Dr. Darnell for helping blaze the research trail in one of the chief intellectual puzzles of 1960s and 1970s biology — how genetic information is used by the cell … and then for switching course to help blaze the research trail for one of the chief intellectual puzzles of 1980s and 1990s biology — how cells signal one another.”

Photo of Dr. Darnell receiving the 2003 National Medal for Science from George W. Bush

Darnell receives the 2003 National Medal for Science from George W. Bush. Photo courtesy the National Science Foundation.

For those breakthroughs, Darnell has received almost every major award available to a research scientist. In 2003 he traveled to the White House to collect the National Medal of Science; the year before it was the Lasker Prize, considered the “American Nobel.” Earlier this year he shared with a colleague the $500,000 Albany Medical Center Prize. In June RU awarded him an honorary degree.

At 81, Jim Darnell wants to make at least one more breakthrough. He and his research assistants are focused on one of the cellular pathways most cancers use — a pathway his lab discovered. Should his team find a way to inhibit events in this pathway, it would be a major step toward the holy grail of biomedical research — stopping cancer.
As for his life in science, Darnell considers himself uncommonly fortunate.
“It has been the most privileged, remarkable thing,” he says. “I’ve gotten up every morning or gone to bed every night knowing that the next day I was going to be able to do the experiment I thought was the most important experiment to do that day.”