My preteen grandkids know who Thomas Edison is. Their grandkids will know, in the same way, about J. Craig Venter.
Venter is a Navy Vietnam Veteran who faced challenges in life, made mistakes in and out of uniform, turned his life around, and eventually became one of the foremost experts in genetics. He mapped the human genome, created synthetic life in this century and is now working on ways to support life on Mars.
I read a passage to my grandsons from a chapter in Venter's autobiography, "A Life Decoded - My Genome: My Life" called "University of Death." The boys were fascinated by his capture of a deadly poisonous snake while Venter swam in the warm waters off China Beach. Two species of poisonous snakes in the South China Sea, Venter says, "travel in large herds measuring miles long and up to a half-mile wide."
Venter, a former Navy Corpsman who spent a lot of his off time swimming in the sea, felt the snake bump into his leg and reached down to grab it, fortunately getting it near the head and not the flattened tail:
"I knew I could not let go. Its jaws were wide open, and it was trying to bite. Sea snakes are strong swimmers, and it was all I could do to hang on. Swimming with one arm while being tumbled by ten to twelve-foot waves and holding on to a writhing snake is not something I would recommend. Finally I was able to stand and started to run but was knocked down by a wave once more. Stumbling breathlessly toward the beach I saw some driftwood and used it to hit the snake on the head until it stopped moving. A friend took a photo of me holding my trophy, recording one of those crossroads in life that, with the wrong luck, could easily have led to death. I did not want to forget what had just happened. I took my knife, skinned my attacker, and back at the hospital, pinned it with hypodermic needles to a board to dry in the sun. I still have the snake skin hanging in my office as a reminder of the encounter."Venter, who says he always felt a need to race – bicycles, boats, people – and take chances, describes his childhood and early adulthood in "A Life Decoded" through a deep understanding of the mind and effects of the Y chromosome, now that he's literally in touch with his genes.
I didn't read to the grandkids about his suicide attempt (which also involved the sea) or the time his girlfriend's dad held a gun to his head or some of his other risk-taking behaviors.
A turning point came from an English teacher in high school who introduced him to "The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger, but Venter admits to being a lousy student overall. A major turning point came in the mid-60s when he was drafted.
"I was very conflicted. I was personally against the war but had a long family history of military service. One ancestor was a fifer and medic during the Revolutionary War. My great-great-great-grandfather served in the cavalry during the War of 1812. My great-grandfather was a sharpshooter in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. My grandfather was a private in World War I, serving in France, where he was badly wounded and had to crawl for miles to safety. And, of course, both my parents had been Marines." (Venter's parents were in the Marine Corps in World War II, serving on "different shores of the Pacific." They met at Camp Pendleton, California.)
|Venter, front row, fourth from left, on his high school swim team.|
As a skilled corpsman he faced war and devastation in Da Nang, caring for injured Marines, civilians, enemy soldiers and other casualties of the war in a Quonset hut intensive ward. He helped at an orphanage, and he provided triage during the TET offensive of 1968.
"Vietnam would teach me more than I ever wanted to know about the fragility of life," he writes. "Death is a powerful teacher." No doubt the snake skin reminds him of overcoming fear, facing death, choosing to live and dealing with snakes along the way.
|Venter is lauded by Clinton in 2000.|
After Venter mapped the human genome, he was invited to the White House June 26, 2000 by President Bill Clinton. Clinton compared the human genome map to the Thomas Jefferson-commissioned map by the Lewis and Clark expedition that "forever expanded the frontiers of our continent and our imagination." Clinton called Venter's and others' work "the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind."
"Decoded" includes Venter's remarks from that day, as well as the deep emotion he felt as his watershed discovery was explained to the world.
"... in Vietnam I learned firsthand how tenuous our hold on life can be. That experience inspired my interest in learning how the trillions of cells in our bodies interact to create and sustain life. When I witnessed firsthand that some men lived through devastating trauma to their bodies, while others died after giving up from seemingly small wounds, I realized that the human spirit was at least as important as our physiology. We're clearly much, much more than the sum total of each of us. Our physiology is based on complex and seemingly infinite interactions among all our genes and the environment, just as our civilization is based on all the interactions among all of us. One of the wonderful discoveries that my colleagues and I have made while decoding the DNA of over two dozen species, from viruses to bacteria to plants to insects, and now human beings, is that we're all connected to the commonality of the genetic code in evolution. When life is reduced to its very essence, we find that we have many genes in common with every species on Earth and that we're not so different from one another."Venter transcended and redeemed himself after his near-death experiences. "Life was my gift," he writes. He chose to understand life at the most fundamental levels. Today, he chooses to make a profound difference to help others. "We're all connected." A good lesson for everyone's grandkids.
(This is part I of essentially a two-and-a-half-part series of posts related to the life and work of Dr. Venter, the Thomas Edison of our time.)