To Paul Berg: in Memory
by Don C. Reed
An old poem, partly remembered: “A tree is fallen, there is a gap against the sky.”
Stanford’s great champion Paul Berg has died.
Others are better equipped to understand and share his scientific contribution, how his Nobel Prize-winning work with recombinant DNA led “to a strain of bacteria (with) the gene for producing the… hormone insulin.” (1)
His efforts and genius saved countless lives.
His advice was welcomed by Bob Klein, who designed the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).
I remember one small incident, nothing major, but illustrative of the man.
This was in the old days before the pandemic, when the public shared every meeting, and I would get there early, to talk to people who made CIRM work: this shining enterprise.
Dr. Paul was alone in the conference room, a brown paper sack on the table in front of him. I had a question for him. I don’t recall exactly what it was, nor how he answered. It was (if I had to guess) about his testimony before a U.S. Committee on stem cell research, and the reasons why embryonic stem cell research had to be respected and funded.
“We must also consider the moral consequences of failing to pursue this line of research if it has the potential to save and improve human lives. What greater morality exists than doing all we can do to help individuals whose lives are blighted by disease and disability?”
But what sticks in the mind was not his comments themselves, but that he responded fully, speaking for about five minutes while I scribbled frantically. And then he said:
“All right, now I am going to eat my sandwich.” The interview had ended. I was not exactly dismissed, but close enough. He was absorbed in his tuna sandwich now, and his thoughts. I thanked him, and went my way.
And I remember the kindness of the man: who not only let me delay his lunch, but gave me a piece of his life.