On 15 June 1971, Wendell Meredith Stanley (1904–1971) passed away in Salamanca, Spain. An American biochemist, he was co-awarded the 1946 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with John Howard Northrop (1891–1987) “for their preparation of enzymes and virus proteins in a pure form” along with James Batcheller Sumner (1887–1955) “for his discovery that enzymes can be crystallized.” Later in life, he authored Chemistry: A Beautiful Thing, for which he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
His Nobel Lecture had described the historical roots of virology:
“Although the idea that certain infectious diseases might be caused by invisible living agents was expressed by Varro and Columella about 100 B. C., there was no experimental proof and the idea was not accepted. The cause of infectious disease remained a mystery for hundreds of years. Even the wonderful work of Leeuwenhoek and his description of small animals and bacteria during the years from 1676 to 1683 failed to result in proof of the relationship between bacteria and infectious disease. There was, of course, much speculation and during the latter half of the 19th century great controversies arose over the germ theory of disease…
“Attempts to learn something about the nature of viruses through studies on their general properties began with Beijerinck’s work in 1898 and were continued in different laboratories for over thirty years without too much success. Although Beijerinck and Allard made important contributions, perhaps the most significant work was that of Vinson and Petre during the years from 1927 to 1931 when they showed that tobacco mosaic virus could be subjected to several kinds of chemical manipulations without loss of virus activity. Nevertheless, when the work on viruses, which is recognized by the 1946 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, was started in 1932, the true nature of viruses was a complete mystery…”
Similarly, an edited volume by Prof. Stanley notes the ancient roots of this research area, and further noted the need for faith to make progress.
“In his classic paper, which appeared in 1915, Twort discussed the possible nature of the infectious agent: it could be an ultravirus, or a small parasite reproducing at the expense of the bacterium, or a phase of the life cycle of the micrococcus, or an autocatalytic enzyme, or a primitive form of life. The existence of acute infectious diseases of bacteria was confirmed two years later by d’Hérelle, who named the agent bacteriophage… Until the end of the nineteenth century, the history of viral diseases is just a part of the history of infectious diseases. In about 2500 B.C., the Chinese had identified smallpox and knew that it was transmissible. Aristotle was aware of the fact that rabies was transmitted by the bite of dogs; the Hebrews used to compare this bite to that of a venomous snake. In Latin, virus means ‘venom’ or similar poisonous fluid. Virus was something which could produce a disease. And in A.D. 50, Cornelius Aulus Celsus produced this remarkable sentence: ‘Rabies is caused by virus.’ Ideas concerning infectious diseases remained metaphysical until the notion of a specific agent emerged, and until, mainly as a consequence of Pasteur’s work, the agents of infectious diseases were identified as microbes.” (Lwoff)
“The nucleic acid of the tobacco mosaic virus was itself shown to be capable of initiating infection by Gierer and Schramm (1956a,b) and a similar, but less-detailed study was made simultaneously by Fraenkel-Conrat (1956). The idea that the nucleic acid might be the infectious agent was not a new one, but the general opinion was that it might be too unstable to exist in an infectious form for any time… When one considers the relative lack of infectivity of untreated virus, and that some 10⁸ particles of nucleic acid were therefore needed to cause a single infection, a certain amount of faith is required in the interpretation of the results, particularly if one considers that the absence of active virus can only be controlled by indirect methods. In particular, the infectivity possessed by the nucleic acid preparations is very labile to the action of pancreatic ribonuclease at concentrations of the latter which have little effect on whole virus (Gierer, 1957). Conversely, the activity is much less affected by antiserum to the whole virus, though it is indeed surprising that the serum used did not contain enough ribonuclease to inactivate the nucleic acid… As has been mentioned, the present evidence is that the infectivity of the tobacco mosaic virus resides in its nucleic acid component. If this is so, then chemical or physical agents which inactivate the virus must act in one of two ways…” (Markham)
A biography at the Bancroft library notes: “In addition to his research activities, Stanley was interested in educating new generations of scientists. He lectured widely throughout his career, both as part of honorary lectureships such as U.C. Berkeley’s Hitchcock Professorship, Cornell’s Messenger Lectureship and Princeton’s Vanuxem Lectures, and on television and radio…He was a member of many national committees and panels and for many years served on the World Health Organization’s Expert Advisory Panel on Virus Diseases. He was active on the editorial boards of several journals and for five years held the chairmanship of the Editorial Board for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”
—Stanley, Wendell M. “Nobel Lecture: The Isolation and Properties of Crystalline: Tobacco Mosaic Virus.” Stockholm, SWE. 12 Dec 1946.
—Bacterial Viruses. Eds. F.M. Burnet, W.M. Stanley (New York, NY: Academic, 1959), 188, 84.
—“Guide to the Wendell M. Stanley papers, 1926-1972.” Online Archive of California. Univ. CA Bancroft Library. Images: ©Biografías y Vidas, 2004-2018, http://amzn.to/2EO0imA.