Life at the Margins

Some discoveries and innovations come from big labs funded incredibly well by governments in affluent countries. They come from those in the mainstream, freighters plowing ahead, forward, straight, with ever better technologies and ever, larger groups of young minds. I tend to write about the other discoveries, the insights and revelations made by the folks at the edge of this mainstream, those in the oxbows and edge riffles.

Even in the era of “big science,” discovery still depends on folks at the margin, folks far enough on the outside to see what others are missing. Often these individuals do not have huge pots of money to work with. They do not have great (or any) institutional support. Yet they have ideas. I have written some about my friend Bill Parker, for instance, who posited a new idea for what the appendix does (that it is a storehouse for good microbes). Bill is not an evolutionary biologist. He is marginal to that field and yet, in looking into it, he sees things that evolutionary biologists have missed. He sees these things through some combination of broad perspective, deep knowledge and, well, that stuff everyone has trouble measuring, good old fashioned cleverness.

Elsewhere, I wrote about Anton Von Leeuwenhoek, an amateur scientist at the margins of European scientific culture in the 1600s. Leeuwenhoek stumbled upon the microscopic world and then, having done so, spent his entire life documenting life forms no one else saw or cared to look for. Leeuwenhoek studied the microbiome of the home long before it was cool.

While still a very young scholar, Lynn Margulis came to the idea (which had earlier Russian precedents) that the chloroplasts of plants and the mitochondria of all eukaryotes were actually ancient microbial lineages living inside hosts. She was right. She would spend the rest of her career coming up with other new ideas from the margins of science. Sometimes those ideas were wildly right, sometimes just as wildly wrong.

More recently, I wrote about Werner Forssmann in the context of my new book, The Man Who Touched his Own Heart. Forssmann performed a self-experiment early in his career in which he catheterized his own heart. He did it without the support of his boss. He did it as a young man without significant institutional power. He imagined that he would go from this experiment to a series of follow-up experiments and perhaps, just maybe, practical diagnoses and even treatments on the basis of his approach.

It was not to be. Forssmann was unable to find a position early in his career that would allow him to continue his experiments with the aggressiveness he desired. In the following years he did a few more rounds of experiments (on humans, dogs and rabbits). He would, again, late in his career, do a handful more. But what might have been easy was hard and too difficult to allow him to be the one to advance the approach he pioneered. This is the flipside of the research done by those without all the money or power, those not quite in the center. Instead of being able to build on their insights, folks at the margins often have to wait for others to do so. Bill Parker imagined doing a study in which he considered the recovery of the gut microbes of individuals with and without their appendixes after a severe infection such as cholera. But this study seemed impossible, too hard to get funded. A group at Rochester though, a group that had been working on guts for decades, was able to do just a study. In doing so, they were able to show that individuals with their appendixes are actually many-fold more likely to recover from Clostridium infections. Parker seems to have been right. Similarly, the obvious follow-ups to Forssmann’s work (at least obvious in retrospect) were not done by Forssmann. They were done by a group at Columbia University in the United States who built on Forssmann’s work in some of the ways he imagined building on it himself. For this, they (André F. Cournand and Dickinson W. Richards) would win the Nobel Prize. This might have been a sad moment for Forssmann if he did not also win it with them, for his work in getting the entire field of cardiology started, lighting a fire that has ultimately enlightened millions of hearts. In winning the prize, Forssmann said he felt, ” like a village parson … who has just learned that he has been made bishop.”

Forssmann’s prize reveals another aspect of work at the margins. Winning the Nobel Prize required Forssmann to be connected enough to the scientific community, even early on, for his papers to be published and read. He was. They were. Similarly, Parker established his ideas about the appendix by engaging evolutionary biologists. Leeuwenhoek’s work became part of scientific knowledge because he corresponded with less marginal scientists in London who, eventually, took his work seriously. Margulis, while always at the edge, found mainstream allies when it was most important. These scholars worked, in one way or another, from the margins, but they were no hermits. Scientists working in pure isolation leave no scientific legacy. Leonardo Da Vinci, for example, did science from the margins, but he was too marginal. His science had no impact because no one built upon it. He made discoveries in the heart that would not be rediscovered until the 1960s. The 1960s! Yes, the 1960s.

In addition, working on some questions in the margins does not necessarily imply a life in the margins, or even a professional life in the margins. Some scholars while marginal relative to their most innovative contributions were central in other endeavors. Bill Parker started his career marginal to evolutionary biology and, to some extent, still is an outsider looking in. But he has another career in which he is central. He studies the immune system and xenotransplantation. In that field Parker does great work that is part of the large body of work being done in the field. It is incremental and, yet, substantive. So too with Werner Forssmann. Forssmann did his first experiment without the power and support necessary to launch it into, on its own, a career. But he did find work in which he was central, though this is not to say it would be simple, easy or without dark years.

After moving from job to job in search of good support and a good fit, he came to focus on clinical urology and surgery, which would transition through time to more administrative roles. In these endeavors he was successful. By 1937, he was Vice Chair of Surgery at the Moabit Hospital in Berlin. Then the war came. In the war, he maintained his role at the hospital then, as a medical officer, worked throughout wartime Germany, sometimes as a field doctor, sometimes in hospitals associated with particular invasions, in other cases at hospitals where the war-injured would be brought. At the end of the war, Forssmann was a prisoner of war. Upon his release, it would take him years to reestablish his career. He eventually became head of a urology department at the small hospital in Bad Kreuznach in the Black Forest (he would change jobs once more after winning the Nobel Prize).

And, of course, the personal lives of scientists working on the margins are as varied as humans more generally. Scientists, like everyone else, can be terrible spouses and parents. They can also be great ones, individuals central to the people around them. The latter appears to have been the case with Forssmann. In 1933, Werner Forssmann married Elsbet Engel. With Elsbet, herself a highly accomplished urologist, Forssmann raised a family of five boys and one girl. As one biographer said of Forssmann, he did not “demand of them that they become outstanding, but he expected them to treasure knowledge, humanity, and the search for justice.” This is a wish, it seems, that the children have collectively fulfilled. Klaus became a physician, Jörg an architect, and Knut a language professor. Wolf George studied peptides. Bernd pioneered the lithotripter, a non-invasive technique for getting rid of kidney and gallstones. Then there is Dr. Renate Forssmann, the youngest in the family. She wrote the biographic paper I have quoted here. She retired from a career in clinical psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University full of accolades, a long career that has offered her time to look back at the ways that her father, who did his first experiment on the margins, led a life of other work that included raising six children, each central to his life. The man who touched his own heart also touched each of theirs.

This, of course, is the great hope for those who would like to push the edges of fields, that they can lean over to the margins and change things while still raising great families, or educating great students. The hope is that we can instill in next generations the desire to “become outstanding… (and to) treasure knowledge, humanity, and the search for justice,” and maybe, just maybe, treasure also, the possibility of radically new insights in light of which everything will change.

Header image credit: Mark Rothko, No. 16 (1961), WikiArt

By | 2016-11-22T13:46:46+00:00 February 19th, 2015|

About the Author:

Rob Dunn
Rob Dunn is a biologist and writer in the Department of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University. Central to all of his work is the sense that big discoveries lurk not only in faraway tropical forests, but also in our backyards and even bedrooms. The unknown is large and wonderful and Dunn and his collaborators, students, and postdocs love to spend their days in it.

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