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Interview with William J. Dreyer

Dreyer, William J. (2005) Interview with William J. Dreyer. [Oral History]

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An interview in five sessions in 1999 with William J. Dreyer, molecular immunologist and Caltech professor of biology (1963-2004). He begins with a discussion of how some people think visually, himself included--a theme to which he returns repeatedly in the interview. He speaks of his family history: childhood in Michigan and Wisconsin; his Norwegian father and possible inherited family traits including dyslexia and mental imaging. Recalls his education at Reed College in Oregon (BA chemistry, 1952) and graduate study at University of Washington (PhD in biochemistry, 1956); works under H. Neurath at UW. First occurrence of cancer while in graduate school. He goes to National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a National Polio Foundation postdoc, where he works on proteins with C. Anfinsen; becomes research scientist at NIH; assists M. Nirenberg in work on genetic code. Meets and works with G. Streisinger on genetic mapping with phage. Still at NIH begins inventing machinery for automating biochemical analyses. Recruited to Caltech and accepts appointment in biology division in 1963. Together with J. Claude Bennett writes major papers on genetic coding for protein structure, gene splicing and monoclonal antibodies. Recalls Leroy Hood's arrival at Caltech in 1963 as grad student. Dreyer's consulting work for Spinco division of Beckman Instruments; helps in the design of an automated protein sequencer; his continuing interest in new technologies. Work in 1960s with W. Gray on sequencing protein in a mass spectrometer for JPL; collaborates with Gray and Hood on 1967 Cold Spring Harbor symposium paper on antibody formation. Roger Sperry at Caltech; his influence on Dreyer. Work on the protein rhodopsin. Robert Sinsheimer as biology division chairman. During 1970s and 80s Caltech develops series of more and more sensitive instruments to synthesize and analyze genes and proteins. 1982 recurrence of Dreyer's cancer. Creation of company Applied Biosystems with Hood and M. Hunkapiller; issues arise over patents and royalties. Dreyer's work with Milton Wexler's Hereditary Disease Foundation. Caltech's Beckman Institute; recruitment of Scott Fraser and creation of Biology Imaging Center at Caltech. Study of olfactory receptors; "area code" hypothesis in embryogenesis. Capillary electrophoresis; the Human Genome Project. Recent experiments involving gene deletion and DNA alteration.

Item Type:Oral History
Additional Information:The interview with William J. Dreyer, Caltech Professor of Biology, as recorded early in 1999, presented significant difficulties in transcription and editing. The quality of the recording itself was poor, due partly to inadequate equipment. There were many inaudible words and phrases. Unfortunately Bill Dreyer's health failed, and he did not live long enough to review the full transcript, although he did read and correct a part of the first session. The Archives is very grateful to his widow, Dr. Janet Roman Dreyer, for her invaluable help in unraveling some of the problem portions. A few of her comments--marked with initials JRD--have been added to the transcript as footnotes. The final transcript still has a number of missing words and phrases. Some elusive segments could be teased out with great patience. Others have remained unresolved. Portions that are still questionable or lacking have been filled in or noted in square brackets by the editors, to the best of their ability. *Charlotte E. Erwin, Associate Archivist, June 2005.*
Keywords:Biology, immunology, biochemistry
Record Number:CaltechOH:OH_Dreyer_W
Persistent URL:
Official Citation:Dreyer, William. Interview by Shirley K. Cohen. Pasadena, California, February 18-March 2, 1999. Oral History Project, California Institute of Technology Archives. Retrieved [supply date of retrieval] from the World Wide Web:
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
Subjects:All Records
Subjects > Chemistry
Subjects > Biology
ID Code:108
Deposited By: Oral Histories Administrator
Deposited On:23 Jun 2005
Last Modified:04 Oct 2019 15:23

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