François Jacob
François Jacob; drawing by David Levine

When they write their autobiographies successful people often follow the pattern of Charlie Chaplin, who in My Autobiography first delights us with his youthful acting talent, which raised him to fame and fortune from a childhood of penury and want, and then bores us with an enumeration of his movies and all the important people he has met. By contrast, François Jacob gives no hint that he is now president of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, a Nobel Laureate, and one of the world’s leading biologists. He presents us with a remarkable life that is symbolic of the tragedy and rebirth of France. Jacob was born in Paris in 1920, of well-to-do Jewish middle-class parents, and had a happy childhood. He attended school in Paris, intending at first to become a soldier like his maternal grandfather, the four-star Jewish general in the French artillery, a wise man full of vigor and courage, a patriot yet no chauvinist, a humane soldier who was the “statue within” of the title, and on whom young François tried to model himself. The obligatory stepping stone to a military career was the Ecole Polytechnique, but the Draconian teachers of the lycée that prepared boys for entry to that famous institution were so sadistic that Jacob quit and decided to become a surgeon instead.

Jacob does not present a sequential account of his life, but a selection of vivid images and episodes like a show of jumbled lantern slides. He sees his life as “a series of different selves—I might almost say, strangers…. Would I recognize them if I passed them in the street?” Yet he made me feel as if their moods and fantasies had been my own, as if I had been an only child loved by his charming mother, had dissected corpses in his anatomy class, had been wounded in battle during World War II, or bungled my research; or as if I had encountered the hauteur of General de Gaulle (“the majesty of a Gothic cathedral”) or lived with the charm, brilliance, and arrogance of his colleague Jacques Monod.

When the young François admired Napoleon, his grandfather told him to idolize no one, neither great men, because they are no gods, nor gods, because they don’t exist. When the general felt he was soon to die, he told the boy not to believe in a life hereafter. He clasped his hand, looked into his eyes, and repeated: “There is nothing. Nothing. The void. So my only hope is you. You and the children you’ll have.” In place of religion, the general built up in the boy’s mind faith in France’s great institutions. Jacob writes:

The Constitution, the authorities, the civil service, the army,…the Polytechnique were a little like the Pantheon, the Arch of Triumph, Notre Dame…. They formed the indestructible framework of our country, of our life…. I scarcely imagined that better ones could be devised.

Yet in the spring of 1940 the inconceivable happened: under the impact of Hitler’s tanks the entire edifice collapsed. A few days before the Germans reached Paris, Jacob’s mother died of cancer. Desolate and disillusioned, he fled to Bordeaux and boarded a ship for England. “Calm, assured, orderly, confident England,” after chaotic, defeated, demoralized France. True to his grandfather’s spirit, he was determined to fight the invaders. His medical studies, his family, his girlfriends, “all that must be put away in a box to be opened only on his return to France.” But would he ever see it again?

On the next page we find him, in August 1944, an auxiliary medical officer in the Free French Army aboard a British landing craft crossing the English Channel; on the horizon he spotted the Promised Land, the coast of France. This was the moment he had lived for during four bitter years of lonely exile, but within a week of landing in Normandy his hopes for a triumphant return to Paris were shattered by a German bomb that smashed his right arm and leg and almost fatally injured his chest. He could have escaped injury by sheltering in a ditch when the bombers approached, but he responded to the desperate plea of a mortally wounded comrade to remain by his side. This heroic and compassionate deed cost him nearly a year in the hospital, his chosen career as a surgeon (“the finest profession in the world” it had seemed to him), and a life of chronic pain (which he conceals).

Jacob recalls his years as a soldier in the war in vignettes. He describes four nostalgic, lonely New Year’s Eves, each spent in a different God-forsaken place in Africa, and a fifth spent alone in a bare room of a military hospital in Paris. He took part in General Leclerc’s grueling but victorious march in 1942 from Chad in Central Africa to the Libyan coast of the Mediterranean across a thousand miles of desert: “When we reached the sea, it seemed that in the distance we saw the coast of France.” He makes us experience the mixture of exaltation and fear before battle as the French army awaited a German attack in the Tunisian desert, and his frustration at having nothing to fight with but bandages. The ill-equipped, part-European and part-African French force stood firm, but the deadly, professional German attack would have annihilated them, had it not been for the bold intervention of the British Royal Air Force, whose planes the Free French followed “with eyes conscious of owing more than they could ever repay.” Jacob recalls his elation after the victory:


Neighbors had come from France and Germany to kill each other on an uninhabited, lifeless land. A strange land, suddenly transformed for a few hours into hell and now recovering its peace, its impassivity. In the darkness that gradually blurred the surrounding shapes, the unity of the night seemed to testify to the unity of the world. I felt a new life being born. Like an escaped prisoner who, in the evening of a long march, reaches the summit of a mountain to find a land of welcome and liberty. The universe seemed to me full and mysterious, like a young animal. Beyond this sand, beyond the mountains, there was the sea. Beyond the sea, France: so green, so full of life. And, for the first time in three years, I knew physically, in every particle of my body, that the return to France was no longer simply a dream. That nothing henceforth, and no one, would prevent us from going home. Nothing save death.

Jacob’s story is haunted by death. His book begins in Paris after the war with the visit of a one-legged comrade who intimates that Jacob should help to release him from life if his suffering becomes unbearable. Jacob pretends not to hear and feels a coward for ignoring his comrade’s cri de coeur; it raises in his mind the specter of being made helpless by old age, of losing his mind like his once proud grandmother, of being at the mercy of others. We cannot help being born, he asserts, but we can choose the moment of death, provided we don’t leave it until too late. But when is the right moment?

In the war in Africa, his narrowest escape came in 1943 on a moonless night when he was ordered to walk across the Tunisian desert, past the German lines, to take medical help to a French outpost. He walked alone. A German shell exploded behind him. He threw himself to the ground and lay there in a cold sweat, paralyzed by fear for what seemed like hours. A dog’s bark stirred him, made him pull himself together, discover that he had lain there for only five minutes. As he proceeded in the dark, he found himself face to face with a German sentry. Should he run away? He carried on, expecting to be killed by a salvo in the back, but miraculously, the German spared him. Years later, at home next to his wife, he still awakes bathed in cold sweat, paralyzed, in terror, the bitter taste of death in his mouth, the faces of his dead friends in his eyes. With an effort, he rouses himself and tiptoes to his children’s room, “watching them until their faces blot out those of the dead.” “In the evening I hurried home to rejoin this beautiful woman with these magnificent children…. It was like the return of spring, the leaves once again on the trees, the sun, flowers. It was like a revenge on the war, on death.”

Yet after his narrow escape from the grave in Normandy, such happiness eluded him for five more lonely, bitter years. In 1944, some weeks after an ambulance train had brought him to Paris, his father found him at last in the Val-de-Grâce Hospital. The visit brought back the stabbing pain at the loss of his mother; a pain exacerbated when the acutely embarrassed father confessed in a tragicomic scene that he would presently remarry. Another visitor at his bedside was Odile, his first love, who told him that she was soon to marry another man. On Armistice Day in May 1945, on the day of triumph, nine months after he was hit, Jacob was still in the hospital, facing another operation to extract a piece of shrapnel from his infected thigh. When at last he was discharged nobody wanted him. “Everyone went about his business as though I had not returned.” Perfunctorily he completed his medical studies, but his injuries did not allow him to take up surgery, the only medical specialty that attracted him. Like a sulking child who refuses all toys if he cannot have his favorite one, he gave up medicine altogether.


He found France still dominated by the money-grubbing petit-bourgeois whose flirtations with fascism before and during the war he blamed for France’s defeat. His disgust drove him to Communist meetings, but they grated on him: “the words used, the meanings they were given, the arguments from authority, the constant references to the sacred Marxist texts, the…speakers’…certainty of being right, of being in possession of the truth…both political and moral” repelled him.

What could people of my generation believe in, if they were neither religious nor communist? Their youth had been stolen from them; their friends killed; their hopes, their enthusiasm dashed. What meaning, what substance could they now give to words like honor, truth, justice, and even nation?

Jacob gives a picture of himself as having dreams of glory but no conception of his own ability, no sense of vocation, no woman friend, no proper home. He dabbled in making antibiotics, wrote movie scripts, worked in a bank for a few days, abandoning it in disgust, bought a book on law and put it aside after three pages. He was shiftless, interested in nothing, wholly disillusioned. This is the saddest and also the most poetic part of his book.

The turning point came when he met a young musician from a Jewish middleclass family like his own; her charming looks reminded him of his mother. “As always when meeting a girl I felt awkward and dim-witted,” but she fell in love with him all the same. Soon after they married they had dinner with a cousin of hers, a young man who had served in the war like Jacob and was now doing research with the great biologist Boris Ephrussi. As Jacob listened to the rapturous account he gave of his work, a thought flashed through his mind: “If that man can do it why can’t I?” He suppressed his fears of being good for nothing, and knocked at the doors of two professors of biology, asking to be taken on as an apprentice. They both turned him down, but Jacques Tréfouël, the director of the Pasteur Institute, saw beneath Jacob’s mask of “arrogance and shyness,” disregarded his professed ignorance of biology, and awarded him a research fellowship. From that moment Jacob’s story is transformed.

Jacob still needed a teacher. He approached the great microbiologist André Lwoff, but Lwoff said he had no room for him. Jacob tried again. Lwoff refused. Jacob persisted. One day, he found Lwoff when he had just made a discovery and felt so cheerful that he said “Yes.” After this Lwoff treated him like a son, encouraged him and gave him confidence in himself. I was reminded of David Keilin, Lwoff’s former teacher in Cambridge, who was to become my own teacher and to give me as much encouragement and affection as Jacob writes he received from Lwoff. Had Keilin set Lwoff an example?

Jacob quickly discovered that scientific research is “not the cold, studious, stiff,…slightly boring world one often imagines. But, on the contrary, a world full of gaiety, of the unexpected, of curiosity, of imagination. A life animated as much by passion as by logic.” “That one could live, travel, eat and raise a family while spending the best part of one’s time doing what one loves, that seemed like a miracle I still found hard to believe.” I still do too.

For Jacob, research in the laboratory is as dramatic as the battles in the desert, and is spiced by bemused observations of his colleagues’ varied characters and idiosyncracies. His catalog of Homo sapiens scientificus includes a number of well-known molecular biologists beginning with James Watson:

Tall, gawky, scraggly, he had an inimitable style. Inimitable in his dress: shirttails flying, knees in the air, socks down around his ankles. Inimitable in his bewildered manner, his mannerisms: his eyes always bulging, his mouth always open, he uttered short, choppy sentences punctuated by “Ah! Ah!” Inimitable also in his way of entering a room, cocking his head like a rooster looking for the finest hen, to locate the most important scientist present and charging over to his side. A surprising mixture of awkwardness and shrewdness. Of childishness in the things of life and of maturity in those of science.

Jacob began research on the genetics of bacteria and viruses, a field allowing him to formulate a hypothesis, design an experiment, test it, and find an answer next morning. Such work was ideally suited to his restless, Faustian spirit. (“Once I had obtained a result, it no longer interested me.”) Within a few years Jacob, together with Elie Wollman, discovered a brilliant method of mapping the sequence of genes along the chromosome of the coli bacterium. These bacteria mate by fusing together in pairs, and during their fusion genes are transferred from the male to the female bacterium. Agitation in a kitchen blender tears them apart. By tearing them apart at successive intervals after mating, Jacob and Wollman discovered that the genes are transferred from the male to the female in linear sequence according to a strict timetable, revealing the sequence of their arrangement on the chromosome, which turned out to be a circular double helix of DNA:

The three or four years spent studying bacterial conjugation, erotic induction, the coitus interruptus, was a period of jubilation. A time of excitement and euphoria. But my memory of it is frozen. It has crystallized in articles and reviews, abstracts and lectures. It has lost its color, dried up in a story too often told, too often formulated. A story that has become so logical, so reasonable as to have lost all juice, no longer conveying the sound and the fury of the daily research. What gave it life has been swallowed up by time. Gone are the abortive trials, the failed experiments, the false starts, the misguided attempts. Forgotten are the fallacious arguments, the hesitations, the jabs of the sword in the water, the groundless joys, the spurts of rage against oneself or against others. Vanished are the hours spent counting the colonies, the anxieties, the uncertainties, the endless waiting. Everything has become smooth and polished. A fine story, very clear, with beginning, middle, and end. With well-oiled, well-articulated, well-arranged experiments, one following another, leading without fault, without hesitation, in seamless argumentation, to a well-established truth. The truth found in textbooks on genetics.

Occasionally other fragments of the past come back to light. Loom up, intact. Impressions. A warmth suddenly coming to my cheeks, for example, as I come upon an old photo of Jacques Monod, with his ironical little smile. Immediately I am back in his office, seated before him. A room in the middle of the hallway, on the ground floor. I have come down to tell him about a result that turned up that very morning. A still uncertain result. Obtained once only. But I have to talk about it, tell the story, share my excitement. To think, to forge ahead, I need to discuss. To try out ideas, to see them rebound. And no one plays this game better than Jacques. He listens to me. Looks at me. Holding his chin in one hand, digging into it with his finger. He asks a question. Rises. Goes to the blackboard. Sketches a diagram. Returns. Abruptly asks whether I have thought of doing a certain control experiment without which my result is worthless. I feel myself redden in confusion. I have forgotten this control. A faint ironic smile plays over Jacques’s lips. The smile in the photo. I would like the earth to open up and swallow me.

Jacob’s story ends on Christmas Eve 1960, when he and Monod completed their famous paper on “Genetic Regulatory Mechanisms in the Synthesis of Proteins,” which opened a new era in our understanding of living cells. It was known that all chemical reactions in living cells are accelerated by enzymes and that all enzymes are proteins. It was also known that the structure of each protein is determined by the gene that codes for it. Most enzymes are made only in response to need, showing that there must be some mechanism controlling their synthesis, but it was not known what that mechanism is. Jacob and Monod discovered that there exist two kinds of genes: the ones that code for proteins and others that regulate the rate at which these proteins are made. These regulator genes switch the synthesis of proteins on or off in response to chemical stimuli. Jacob and Monod discovered these genes in coli bacteria and provided a largely correct picture of their operating mechanism. They suspected similar mechanisms to exist in all forms of life, whence Monod’s famous dictum: “Anything found to be true in Escherichia coli must also be true for elephants.” Almost! The discovery won Jacob and Monod, together with Jacob’s much loved and admired teacher André Lwoff, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for 1965.

Jacob has written a superb memoir, one that struck me as comparable in its evocative power to Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Franklin Philip’s English translation gives a thoughtful and accurate rendering of the French text, with all its rich language and imagery.

This Issue

May 12, 1988