BIOTECHNOLOGY – Program in the History of the Biological Sciences and Biotechnology

SWANSON, ROBERT A. (1947-1999)
Corporate executive, venture capitalist

Florida family background; education at MIT, 1965-1970; early career at Citicorp and Kleiner & Perkins Venture Capital, 1970-1975; corporate executive, Genentech, 1976-1996: founding, financing, staffing the company; somatostatin, insulin, growth hormone, and other projects; university-industry relations/tensions; business strategy & plans; initial public offering; corporate culture; intellectual property; joint ventures; recombinant DNA controversy. Comments on Thomas D. Kiley, David Packard, Thomas Perkins, and others.

Introductions by Arthur D. Levinson, Ph.D., CEO & Chairman, Genentech, Inc., and Kenneth P. Morse, M.B.A, Managing Director, MIT Entrepreneurship Center.

Interviewed in 1996 and 1997 by Sally Smith Hughes, Ph.D., Regional Oral History Office, for the Program in the History of the Biological Sciences and Biotechnology, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Biotechnology Series History–

by Sally Smith Hughes, Ph.D.

Genesis of the Program in the History of the Biological Sciences and Biotechnology

In 1996, a long-held dream of The Bancroft Library came true with the launching of its Program in the History of the Biological Sciences and Biotechnology. For years, Bancroft had wished to document the history of the biological sciences on the Berkeley campus, particularly its contributions to the development of molecular biology. Bancroft has strong holdings in the history of the physical sciences–the papers of E.O. Lawrence, Luis Alvarez, Edwin McMillan, and other campus figures in physics and chemistry, as well as a number of related oral histories. These materials support Berkeley’s History of Science faculty, as well as scholars from across the country and around the world.

Although the university is located next to the greatest concentration of biotechnology companies in the world, Bancroft had no coordinated program to document the industry nor its origins in academic biology. For a decade, the staff of the Regional Oral History Office had sought without success to raise funds for an oral history program to record the development of the industry in the San Francisco Bay Area. When Charles Faulhaber arrived in 1995 as Bancroft’s new director, he agreed to the need to establish a Bancroft program to capture and preserve the collective memory and papers of university and corporate scientists and the pioneers who created the biotechnology industry. He too saw the importance of documenting the history of a science and industry which influences virtually every field of the life sciences, generates constant public interest and controversy, and raises serious questions of public policy. Preservation of this history was obviously vital for a proper understanding of science and business in the late twentieth century.

Bancroft was the ideal location to launch such an historical endeavor. It offered the combination of experienced oral history and archival personnel, and technical resources to execute a coordinated oral history and archival program. It had an established oral history series in the biological sciences, an archival division called the History of Science and Technology Program, and the expertise to develop comprehensive records management plans to safeguard the archives of individuals and businesses making significant contributions to molecular biology and biotechnology. It also had longstanding cooperative arrangements with UC San Francisco and Stanford University, the other research universities in the San Francisco Bay Area. The history of biotech project was to provide a basis for continuing collaboration among the three institutions in the documentation of recent science and technology through oral history and archival collection. The only ingredient missing was funding.

In April 1996, the dream became reality. Daniel E. Koshland, Jr. provided seed money for a center at The Bancroft Library for historical research on the biological sciences and biotechnology. Thanks to this generous gift, Bancroft has begun to build an integrated collection of research materials–primarily oral history transcripts, personal papers, and archival collections–related to the history of the biological sciences and biotechnology in university and industry settings. One of the first steps was to create a board composed of distinguished figures in academia and industry who advise on the direction of the oral history and archival components. The Program’s initial concentration is on the San Francisco Bay Area and northern California. But its ultimate aim is to document the growth of molecular biology as an independent field of the life sciences, and the subsequent revolution which established biotechnology as a key contribution of American science and industry.

UCSF Library, with its strong holdings in the biomedical sciences, is a collaborator on the archival portion of the Program. David Farrell, Bancroft’s curator of the History of Science and Technology, serves as liaison. In February 1998, Robin Chandler, head of UCSF Archives and Special Collections, completed a survey of corporate archives at local biotechnology companies and document collections of Berkeley and UCSF faculty in the biomolecular sciences. The ultimate aim is to ensure that personal papers and business archives are collected, cataloged, and made available for scholarly research.

Project Structure

With the board’s advice, Sally Hughes, a science historian at the Regional Oral History Office, began lengthy interviews with Robert Swanson, a co-founder and former CEO of Genentech in South San Francisco; Arthur Kornberg, a Nobel laureate at Stanford; and Paul Berg, also a Stanford Nobel laureate. A short interview was conducted with Niels Reimers of the Stanford and UCSF technology licensing offices. These oral histories build upon ones conducted in the early 1990s, under UCSF or Stanford auspices, with scientists at these two universities. The oral histories offer a factual, contextual, and vivid personal history that enriches the archival collection, adding information that is not usually present in written documents. In turn, the archival collections support and provide depth to the oral history narrations.

Primary and Secondary Sources

This oral history program both supports and is supported by the written documentary record. Primary and secondary source materials provide necessary information for conducting the interviews and also serve as essential resources for researchers using the oral histories. The oral histories also orient scholars unfamiliar with the field or the scientist to key issues and participants. Such orientation is particularly useful to a researcher faced with voluminous, scattered, and unorganized primary sources. This two-way "dialogue" between the documents and the oral histories is essential for valid historical interpretation.

Beginning with the first interviews in 1992, the interviewer has conducted extensive documentary research in both primary and secondary materials. She gratefully acknowledges the generosity of the scientists who have made their personal records available to her: Paul Berg, Stanley Cohen, Arthur Kornberg, William Rutter, and Keith Yamamoto. She also thanks the archivists at Bancroft, UCSF, and Stanford libraries, and personnel at Chiron, Genentech, and Stanford’s Office of Technology Licensing, for assistance in using archival collections.

Oral History Process

The oral history methodology used in this program is that of the Regional Oral History office, founded in 1954 and producer of over 1,600 oral histories. The method consists of research in primary and secondary sources; systematic recorded interviews; transcription, light editing by the interviewer, and review and approval by the interviewee; library deposition of bound volumes of transcripts with table of contents, introduction, interview history, and index; cataloging in UC Berkeley and national online library networks (MELVYL, RLIN, and OCLC); and publicity through ROHO news releases and announcements in scientific, medical, and historical journals and newsletters and via the ROHO and UCSF Library Web pages.

Oral history as a historical technique has been faulted for its reliance on the vagaries of memory, its distance from the events discussed, and its subjectivity. All three criticisms are valid; hence the necessity for using oral history documents in conjunction with other sources in order to reach a reasonable historical interpretation. Yet these acknowledged weaknesses of oral history, particularly its subjectivity, are also its strength. Often individual perspectives provide information unobtainable through more traditional sources. Oral history in skillful hands provides the context in which events occur–the social, political, economic, and institutional forces which shape the course of events. It also places a personal face on history which not only enlivens past events but also helps to explain how individuals affect historical developments.

An advantage of a series of oral histories on a given topic, in this case molecular biology and biotechnology, is that the information each contains is cumulative and interactive. Through individual accounts, a series can present the complexities and interconnections of the larger picture. Thus the whole (the series) is greater than the sum of its parts (the individual oral histories), and should be considered as a totality.

Emerging Themes

Although the oral history program is still in its infancy, several themes are emerging. One is "technology transfer," the complicated process by which scientific discovery moves from the university laboratory to industry where it contributes to the manufacture of commercial products. The oral histories show that this trajectory is seldom a linear process, but rather is influenced by institutional and personal relationships, financial and political climate, and so on.

Another theme is the importance of personality in the conduct of science and industry. These oral histories testify to the fact that who you are, what you have and have not achieved, whom you know, and how you relate has repercussions for the success or failure of an enterprise, whether scientific or commercial. Oral history is probably better than any other methodology for documenting these personal dimensions of history. Its vivid descriptions of personalities and events not only make history vital and engaging, but also contribute to an understanding of why circumstances occurred in the manner they did.

Molecular biology and biotechnology are fields with high scientific and commercial stakes. As one might expect, the oral histories reveal the complex interweaving of scientific, business, social, and personal factors shaping these fields. The expectation is that the oral histories will serve as fertile ground for research by present and future scholars interested in any number of different aspects of this rich and fascinating history.

Update, September 2001

In early 2001, the Program in the History of the Biological Sciences and Biotechnology was given great impetus by Genentech’s generous pledge of one million dollars to support documentation of the biotechnology industry. At an initial meeting of Genentech and Library personnel in November 2000, it was agreed that the initial phase of the Genentech-supported project in the company’s twenty-fifth anniversary year should focus on oral histories with current and former Genentech employees. Archival collection, on the other hand, was designated as a long-term process because of the greater necessity to gather oral documentation while minds are clear and because of Genentech’s present need to retain many corporate documents for legal and other reasons.

On October 15, 2001, The Bancroft Library will celebrate Genentech’s twenty-fifth anniversary and acknowledge its generosity to the Program by formally presenting the oral histories of Herbert W. Boyer and Robert A. Swanson, the company’s founders. Oral histories are currently in progress with the following individuals presently or formerly at Genentech: David Goeddel, Arthur Levinson, Fred Middleton, Richard Scheller, and Daniel Yansura. Oral histories are also completed or in progress with individuals at Chiron Corporation and Tularik, Inc. The next phase will expand documentation to other biotechnology companies.

Location of the Oral Histories

Copies of the oral histories are available at the Bancroft, UCSF, and UCLA libraries. They also may be purchased at cost through the Regional Oral History Office. Some of the oral histories, with more to come, are available on The Bancroft Library’s History of the Biological Sciences and Biotechnology


Sally Smith Hughes, Ph.D.
Historian of Science

Regional Oral History Office
The Bancroft Library
University of California, Berkeley

October 2001

Oral Histories on Biotechnology

Program in the History of the Biological Sciences and Biotechnology

Program in the History of the Biological Sciences and Biotechnology

  • Paul Berg, Ph.D.,
  • "A Stanford Professor’s Career in Biochemistry, Science Politics, and the Biotechnology Industry," 2000
  • Herbert W. Boyer, Ph.D.,
  •     "Recombinant DNA Science at UCSF and Its Commercialization at Genentech," 2001
  • Arthur Kornberg, M.D.,
  •     "Biochemistry at Stanford, Biotechnology at DNAX," 1998
  •     "Regional Characteristics of Biotechnology in the United States: Perspectives of Three Industry Insiders" (Hugh D’Andrade, David Holveck, and Edward Penhoet), 2001
  • Niels Reimers,
  •     "Stanford’s Office of Technology Licensing and the Cohen/Boyer Cloning Patents," 1998
  • William J. Rutter, Ph.D.,
  •     "The Department of Biochemistry and the Molecular Approach to Biomedicine at the University of California, San Francisco," 1998
  • Robert A. Swanson,
  •     "Co-founder, CEO, and Chairman of Genentech, 1976-1996," 2001
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