Daniel Nathans is a patient man. But some things simply are too important to put off. That's why the Nobel Prize-winning researcher is willing to keep the Johns Hopkins University president's seat warm for the next six months or so while trustees search for someone else to take the post.
"There are some important problems that the school faces that may not wait until the next president," said Dr. Nathans, 66, a molecular biologist who has spent half his life at the Hopkins School of Medicine. Federal support for research -- long the mother's milk of Hopkins finances -- looks shaky, and reforms sweeping through the marketplace for health care threaten one of America's most respected -- and most costly -- hospitals.
"I don't think I can turn this ship around or sharply to the left or sharply to the right," said Dr. Nathans, who was named to the interim post last month. "But I think I can initiate things that will appeal to my successor, based not so much on what I want but based on what the faculty wants."
A lot of long days in the nation's capital spent beseeching U.S. officials, a lot of long nights on the road spent soothing Hopkins alumni -- the job is a marked change of pace for this temperate investigator who has spent most of his life pestering proteins.
The $3 billion federal Human Genome Project, an attempt to identify and describe all 60,000 to 80,000 genes in human DNA, is derived in part from his pioneering work isolating genes and sketching their designs. Genes possess the information that contains the instructions for the construction and operation of all living beings.
Hopkins molecular biology Professor Hamilton O. Smith uncovered "restriction enzymes," which slice up DNA at specific points. Dr. Nathans' insight was to use those enzymes to map the structure of genes in the DNA. In 1978, Drs. Nathan and Smith shared a Nobel Prize in biology with a third researcher working independently for steps toward mapping DNA, the material that defines all living organisms.
"The most important thing is to ask the right question," said Jeremy Nathans, Dr. Nathans' son. "For scientists, it's not what they do 9-to-5; it's when they're combing their hair, what they're turning over in their minds."
Jeremy Nathans should know. He also is a researcher in genetics and an associate professor in Dr. Nathans' department at Hopkins.
The past few decades have been ones of unrivaled exploration for biomedical research, the younger Dr. Nathans said. "It's very much like geographical exploration circa the 16th century. Anybody who had a boat, like Sir Francis Drake, was going to bump up against something," he said. "But some people are sailing in a particular direction because they know that's the right way to go."
Daniel Nathans' mentor was William Barry Wood Jr., a Harvard All-America quarterback who came to Hopkins for medical school and returned later to become a vice president. Dr. Wood dropped that high-flying post to descend into the heart of the institution where decisions are made -- the department chairmanship, in his case, of microbiology.
Dr. Nathans, then a young man, was at Rockefeller University, a New York City-based research institute. He was offered a post in Baltimore, less than an hour from his native Wilmington, Del.
"Barry Wood was the kind of person who just took it for granted that you would give it your all. Didn't ask you, didn't tell you, didn't look over your shoulder. Just expected it," he said.
Dr. Wood had no interest in letting him become restless. "He kept an eye on his faculty," Dr. Nathans said.
"Dan," Dr. Wood would say, "I think you need more space." Or, "Dan, it's time you had a raise." Or a promotion. "That had a real effect on me," Dr. Nathans said. "I was never tempted to leave."
When he had an invitation to visit another campus, Dr. Wood told him: "You don't have to go somewhere else to become chairman of the department. You tell me when you're ready, and I'll step down."
Dr. Nathans described this with the tone of someone to whom something marvelous happens to be happening, rather than someone who has earned this kind of treatment.
"I flourished. It was a great life," he said. "There was a tremendous feeling of freedom. Do what you wanted to do. Teach what you wanted to teach, as long as it was first rate."
Dr. Nathans said he "was noticed" by colleagues in the department of physiological chemistry, who encouraged him to set up a joint program with his own department of molecular biology and genetics. That collaboration is now the basis for the medical school's largest graduate program, with nearly 100 students.