More autobiography: How I wangled myself into Harvard in one day

May 8, 2020 • 12:00 pm

And the end of my last tale, “How I became a conscientious objector“, I had been released from my CO job by the Federal courts, and, as it was too late to start graduate school, I was headed off to Europe for a five-month “Wanderhalbjahr.”

This next part is a bit fuzzy, but before I went to Rockefeller University in the summer of 1971, I’d also been accepted to several other graduate schools, including the University of Chicago, where I wanted to study evolutionary genetics with Dick Lewontin. When I turned them down to study with Theodosius Dobzhansky at Rockefeller, I remember that they told me that if I changed my mind I could still go to Chicago. (Who imagined that I would wind up here today?).

Here’s a photo of me with my cabal of buddies at Rockefeller, probably taken in 1972 when I was doing my CO. I have the tennis racket, cigarette, and lab-made “hookah”.  Everyone in the photo is a landsman.

When I was released from my CO, Dobzhansky had retired and gone to the University of California at Davis with his former student Francisco Ayala, who became a professor. As I didn’t want to study with someone who was retired (it may not have been possible anyway), I believe I called Chicago (not Lewontin himself) and accepted their offer for the fall of 1973.  As I recall (again, the details are hazy), they said that was great, and I could start there in that fall. Relieved that I had a good grad school and a good professor to study with, I went off to Europe for five months with my girlfriend.  That epic trip began in Athens and continued to Crete, where we lived for a month in the tiny village of Sitia (story here). That trip was to continue to Santorini, up through Greece to Istanbul, through Yugoslavia, Austria, Germany, France, and Spain, then across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco, and down to Marrakesh. But more on that later.

At any rate, when I returned from that trip in August, I believe I called Lewontin and said “I’m ready to join your lab in Chicago.” He then informed me that he had in fact accepted a job at Harvard beginning that fall. When I said, “Well, can I join you there?”, he informed me that he had already bargained with Harvard to take his five Chicago grad students and one postdoc, and I was not among them. When I asked them if he could do something for me, he said no. Lewontin barely remembered me, and as I recall, when I interviewed at Chicago and met him, he spent very little time with me and then dumped me onto somebody else. I didn’t know the drill then, but we became good friends later and so I don’t resent that. After all, though I had a good undergrad record, Dick didn’t know me from Adam. (I did have a four-year NSF predoctoral fellowship, which made me almost no financial burden to a University.)

I was of course downhearted, because graduate school was going to start in a month or so and I had nowhere to go, nobody to study with. I decided then and there that I would fly up to Harvard and try to get in on my own.

And so, within two days, I was on a plane to Boston with my papers, transcript, and other documents, determined to talk my way into Harvard. Oy, was I a greenhorn back then! Now I would have said the effort would have been futile. But I was young, fearless, and ambitious.

The next day I went to Harvard and, at 9 a.m., I knocked on the door of E. O. Wilson, the famous biologist who had an office in the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). I explained to his secretary what I wanted, and I was given an audience with the great man.  Sitting in his spacious office, I pleaded my case, not forgetting to mention that I had four years of free tuition and stipend, and so would barely cost Harvard anything. I also had straight As from William and Mary, where I was a valedictorian, two published papers, and very good GRE scores.

I think Wilson thought me a good bet, because after our conversation he told me that he would make appointments for me with other Harvard professors so that I could have an impromptu interview. I spent the rest of the morning and afternoon further pleading my case with other professors. Then, at the end of the day, somebody from the Biology office gave me an application for graduate school to fill out, took me down to a dark room in the MCZ basement and sat me down in front of an old Royal typewriter—not even an electric. They gave me a few hours to write my application, which included the crucial “why I want to study at Harvard” essay. Since I was not prepared to write that, I had to wing it.

A digression: You might know that Wilson and Lewontin were bitter enemies during the “sociobiology wars”, but earlier on they were good friends and part of a small group of ecologists and evolutionists (including Richard Levins and Robert MacArthur), who planned as a group to unite ecology and evolution into one theoretical framework. Wilson had in fact brought Lewontin to Harvard, so that Wilson was not at all put off that I wanted to study with Lewontin. But later Wilson began writing about sociobiology, first in articles and then in his eponymous book of 1975, and by then Dick and Ed had become bitter enemies, and wouldn’t even speak to each other in the elevator. (I rode up with both of them once, and believe me, it not a comfortable ride. Not a word was exchanged.)

Back to writing my Harvard application. I remember that at one point the keys on the typewriter jammed, and, trying to unstick several of the bars with the typeface on them (I type very fast), I cut my fingers and began bleeding all over my application.  So what I turned in at the end of the day was a blood-spattered application for graduate school at Harvard.

I was told they’d convene a special meeting of the admissions committee, and I would hear shortly. I flew back to my parents’ house in Arlington, Virginia, and, sure enough, in a few days I was told I’d been admitted to Harvard (I’m sure my NSF fellowship helped, as I was pretty much of a freebie).

That September, I moved into a small apartment with friends in a basement on Beacon Street across the river in Boston, and began commuting every day to the MCZ. Lewontin’s lab was under construction on the third floor of the MCZ labs, one floor below Wilson’s space, so we all lived in cramped quarters on the first floor for a year. I should add that our landlord in Boston was Jim Davis, the owner of the New Balance shoe company, which was just starting up as a mainstream sneaker company. Jim used to give us samples to try out. (I still wear New Balance running shoes out of loyalty.) Now, of course, Davis is a billionaire.

And so I settled in at the MCZ, awed by both Lewontin and the high quality of the grad students and postdocs he had. (For several years I didn’t think I could ever measure up, but I gained some confidence after a while.)

So that’s how I got into Harvard. One more thing remains to be said. Despite the rancor between Wilson and Lewontin, I never really took sides, especially personally. Lewontin’s objection to sociobiology was largely ideological: the idea that humans had evolutionarily-based behaviors was repugnant to a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist like Lewontin, who believed in infinite human malleability. I was too scientifically naive to take sides in that debate, but I always liked Wilson. Not just because he helped me get into Harvard, but because he really was a nice guy and without the arrogance of, say, Steve Gould (who was on my thesis committee). I also was a teaching assistant for Ed for two years in the introductory course Bio 1, and it was a pleasure (Ed was a great lecturer).

I have of course had scientific differences with Ed in recent years as he moves toward group-selectionist explanations for everything, but as a person and a human being I still respect him immensely. He’s been a great force in promoting conservation and ecology and a polymathic biologist despite some of his misconceptions.

More stories to come, I guess. Here’s a photo of me at Harvard taken by my friend Peter Haas. I’m not sure of the date, but it’s probably around 1975:


62 thoughts on “More autobiography: How I wangled myself into Harvard in one day

    1. A filter flask – back in the days before ground glass joints were common, you’d stick the tube part of a filter funnel through a cork, and sit that in the neck of the filter flask, connect the sidearm to a vacuum source (usually a water ejector sitting in the nearby sink), and presto, vacuum filtration.

      1. This book – modernized from the 1960’s edition- has a design on page 78 for a home kitchen:

        Raymond E. Barrett
        Build it yourself science laboratory

        … that book is delightful and I wish I had known about it earlier.

  1. Thank you for sharing your story with us. It’s fascinating (and, look at that hair!)
    You did, and are, living in interesting times. If/when you don’t mind sharing, I would love to know about your growing-up years with your family. (Even interested in the genealogy).

      1. Difficult to understand how two people of such accomplishment could let professional differences have such an impact on their personal relationship.

        I mean, how hard would it have been for one of ’em just to walk on the elevator one day and say, “How ’bout them Red Sox?”

        1. When I was a graduate student (at Chicago) in the 1970s, I had two statistics professors. One was a frequentist, the other a Bayesian. They were bitter enemies and always snubbed each other. Over the meaning of probability?!! Go figure.

      2. I interviewed both Lewontin and E O Wilson around 1975, after Wilson had published his book on Sociobiology. I had a contract with the NY publisher William Morrow for a book with interviews on science and society with scientists, and I got an interesting advance. I remember Lewontin in a cave-like big office with a long table under a window that was too high to look trough. During the conversation-he appeared quite severe–he received a phone call, and when the call finished, he said that this was from Le Monde in Paris and that they were publishing his article. Wilson, who had an office in the same building, came over as quite friendly, but I’d never seen an office like he had: it was kind of a zoo full of large tables with branches in pots, with ants crawling all over. There were several complete colonies, with ants ranging from two inches long to tiny ones. Unfortunatey the book project died, the editors at Morrow thought it was too highbrow (and Lewontin was not the only leftist scientist). My agent in New York placed the book with another publisher, but the editor working on my project died, and that was the end of this book project. My advance was running out and I had to look for a job again.

  2. I love these stories! It reminds me a little of the story my mother tells about how she got into Stanford as an undergrad in 1942. For reasons I don’t remember, she had not applied to college and Stanford was closest to her home (they had a ranch in Monterey County), so her dad took her down there and said they really needed to accept her. He was convincing enough that they sat her down to take an entrance exam. She passed, but Stanford said she had to go to summer school to prove she could really be a successful student. It all worked out for her.

    Your story is much more complicated and dramatic —— ah, the blood-stained application.

  3. Looks like you got your mitts on an old Wilson T-2000 there, boss, the steel racket Jimmy Connors kept using long after it had become démodé.

  4. The merry pranksters of the upper east side. Is that a young, bearded robert ziff on the far left?

    1. You know Ziff? Yes, I just identified him above. The guy next to him is his enormously creative brother Stuart. We called Bob R.Z., and he directed several dramatic super-8 movies we made at Rockefeller. Remind me to tell you about them some time.

      1. Yes i met him as RZ when i visited you for a couple of days at rockefeller. You had just completed the super 8 “the bastard son of john d rockefeller” i believe was the title, complete with a scene with RZ running with the camera. Funny what one can remember after almost 50 years.

  5. Great stories. Just think, if you had gotten chummy with the shoe guy and joined up with his company, you could be a multi-millionaire now. I bet you prefer the course your life took, though.

  6. So what I turned in at the end of the day was a blood-spattered application for graduate school at Harvard.

    Maybe the admissions committee was impressed you were willing to bleed Harvard crimson just to get in.

  7. This may seem like a peripheral matter, but if you’re still in contact with Jim Davis, please tell him that his shoes are the only ones that consistently fit me comfortably! That’s a big deal for someone with post-surgical chronic back problems.

    1. For those of us with wide feet, New Balance shoes are wonderful as you can get them in 4E and even 6E. The company still makes some of the shoes in the US, but not all.

  8. But later Wilson began writing about sociobiology, first in articles and then in his eponymous book of 1975, and by then Dick and Ed had become bitter enemies, and wouldn’t even speak to each other in the elevator.

    I heard an anecdote that, after decades of silence on the elevator, once, when Wilson published his book on Ants, Lewontin passed a comment on the elevator to the effect, “Nice to see you doing science again, Ed.” Then it was back to silence.

  9. Amazing story!

    I imagine an ad :

    “Straight A’s – they helped this man one afternoon – try some today! STRAIGHT A’s”

    … is that how A is pluralized?

  10. You mention that Stephen Jay Gould was arrogant. I was unaware of that and it disappoints me. I read that “Many scientists still resent the rough treatment Gould and Lewontin gave soft-spoken biologist E.O. Wilson, father of the sociobiology field, back in the 1970s.” I’m curious — in what other ways was he arrogant? Was he arrogant toward students, inferiors? Did he kick cats?

  11. Great story!
    “Lewontin’s objection to sociobiology was largely ideological: the idea that humans had evolutionarily-based behaviors was repugnant to a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist like Lewontin, who believed in infinite human malleability.”
    Does Lewontin still believe that evolutionarily-based behaviors donn’t exist? This seems a great stretch today, since it presumes that the brain is special and its evolution doesn’t affect phenotype.

  12. These are great histories; keep ’em coming!

    FYI it appears that the first word of the piece is a typo.

  13. There is something about Stephen Jay Gould’s writing that makes me not surprised to learn that he was arrogant personally. The conflict that developed between Dick Lewontin and Ed Wilson is a great pity. [Reminiscent, in a way, of the personal conflicts Marx himself kept getting into.] One character in
    this engrossing memoir that I wish I could have met was Dobzhansky. I was deeply impressed by “Genetics and the Origin of Species”, which I read in grad school, although I was in a much more biochemical field. I see that PCC(e) kept to the Dobie spirit right through his career.

  14. From this blog, five years ago (April 28, 2015):

    As for Gould as a person, I had little use for him. In my experience the man was arrogant, preening, and completely lacked empathy, especially for us poor students trying to ask him questions. He often treated people very shabbily. Gould was a smart man and an eloquent man, but not a nice man. But we’re used to such people in science.

    1. I met him many years ago when he gave a talk to a small group of us at UCSD. I got to chat with Gould for a while, and he signed his Wonderful Life book for me. Although that was but a brief encounter, I saw what is described here.

  15. What a great story. Real gold dust. Dare one ask if you’re going to attempt a longer personal memoir, Jerry?

  16. I’m wondering which branch of Marxism Lewontin favored. Trotsky, Kautsky, Stalin (hopefully not), Social Democracy ?

  17. I’ve really enjoyed these autobiographical essays — many thanks for posting them!

  18. The 1975 picture looks very consistent with somebody with your taste in 1970s music. Bad Sneakers and the pina colada my friend.

  19. Really really interesting! I like history of science & you are a part of that. I just cannot see why colleagues cannot disagree & still get on. But suppose if the one person based his differences on ideology rather than fact or theory, it is a given that they will take contrary positions as an insult…🤨

  20. Thanks for this story. It’s a great read.

    I occasionally stumble over what seems like Yiddish (often sounds like Swabian, and I understand German). Can you elucidate what is meant by “landsman” in this context? The literal meaning would be “fellow Americans” which strikes me as odd at that place. Since it’s probably yiddish, did you mean they are sort-of religious fellow countrymen, i.e. jewish?

  21. What a wonderful tale, and the photos of you as a youth!

    I looked much the same, though I would have killed for your head of hair, and had an experience that mirrored yours, albeit on a much smaller scale, when I went back to my alma mater to hunt down a job after working in a lab outside Boston for two years.

    What struck me about your story was that it likely couldn’t happen today. Back in the day, you could just walk in to a university building, go to any particular department, and knock on someone’s door. And they would answer that door, and be pleased to talk to you.

    Now we live in an era of terrorism, and security, and electronic ID and informatics. Entry doors now have security locks requiring coded ID cards. Where I once walked into the university employment department, knocked on the door of an interviewer and made a friend who got me a job, now there is no entry possible. Instead there is a wall of bullet-proof glass, and a receptionist who will inform you in no uncertain terms that nope – you may NOT speak to anyone,it simply isn’t done, applications are made on-line only, end of story. We have lost much over the past few decades.

  22. Wonderful story, Prof. Coyne. Seeing that photo of you reminded me of how similar many of us looked back then. Oddly enough, in recent years I’ve taken to shaving off all but a quarter inch of my hair and beard – saves on barber costs when you’re on a tight budget, as I am. But since the start of this awful pandemic, I’ve just let everything grow, so that I’m beginning to look like Methuselah, albeit an atheist one.

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