On the shoulders of giants, a tribute to David’s mentors

All of us in science, to a greater or lesser extent, stand on the shoulders of giants. That is, we use the understanding gained by major thinkers who have gone before us in order to make intellectual progress.

The 12th century theologian and author John of Salisbury used a version of the phrase:

"We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours."

Isaac Newton also wrote in a letter to his rival Robert Hooke:

"What Descartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, and especially in taking the colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

In any event, any accomplishments of the Leib Laboratory owe a great deal to 3 giants, all now sadly passed on. The first 2 of these giants, Kevin McCarthy and Tony Hart were my mentors when I was a graduate student in Liverpool England. At the time I was there, Prof McCarthy was Head of Department, a position that he had assumed from Prof. Allan Downie in 1966. Prof McCarthy retired in 1986, the year I left the lab, and although I was his last graduate student, he continued with his research for another 10 years after his "retirement'. He died in August 2007, aged 86. Tony took over as Head of Department following Prof McCarthy's retirement, in which capacity he served until his untimely death in September of 2007 aged 59. Both of them played a pivotal role in my scientific development, were widely published, highly respected, and both made major contributions to the field of infectious disease. In my years post-graduation, I exchanged several important correspondences with Prof McCarthy, and one letter in particular epitomizes the man, in terms of his impish humour, his inventiveness, and his generosity. If you can persevere with his handwriting, it is well worth a read. It is an absolute treasure, especially the postscript in which he describes his self-confessed "mad" boyhood attempt to make a 30,000v induction coil and an x-ray machine. He delights in telling me the irony that the University made him chair of the safety committee. As my father would say, "they don't make them like that any more".

In early 1987 I moved to Boston to take a postdoctoral fellowship with the third of my mentoring giants, Dr Priscilla Schaffer, at Harvard Medical School. I worked in Priscilla's lab on herpes simplex virus latency and pathogenesis until 1990 when I went to Washington University, St Louis, coincidentally Priscilla's home town. She was a terrific and tough mentor, and I can honestly say that my decision to come to her laboratory was one of the very best I have ever made. Priscilla sadly died from complications of Parkinson's Disease at the all too young age of 67. It is not possible to write a better tribute to her life and career than was written in Journal of Virology by Don Coen. In it, he captures the spirit and essence of the worman, as well as her many accomplishments.