Wendell Meredith Stanley

The American virologist Wendell Meredith Stanley (1904-1971) convinced the world that viruses are physicochemically definable particles showing some properties of living material.

On Aug. 16, 1904, W. M. Stanley was born in Ridgeville, Ind. At the age of 16 he entered Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., where he majored in chemistry and mathematics and excelled in football. Upon graduating, he considered a career as an athletic coach. A visit to the University of Illinois at Urbana in connection with his contemplated football career culminated in a fortuitous interview with Roger Adams, professor of chemistry. Three years of graduate work under Professor Adams followed.

After graduating, Stanley married a collaborator, Marian Jay, and they spent a year at the University of Munich. In 1931 he joined the Rockefeller Institute in New York City. The following year he transferred to its newly established laboratory of plant pathology at Princeton, N.J., where he did his important research, the crystallization of the tobacco mosaic virus, which within 3 years led to a short epoch-making paper in Science and to many more publications, lectures, and world renown within 6 years.


Origin of Molecular Virology

Viruses differ from bacteria and other microorganisms in replicating not on nutrient media but only in living cells. Stanley, as a chemist, knew that purification should lead to pure and usually crystallizable materials. He was working at a time when mysterious enzymes were proved to be crystallizable proteins. He employed these protein methods and succeeded in 1935 in obtaining pure tobacco mosaic virus, free from plant material and infective when introduced into susceptible plants. The crystals seen by Stanley are now called paracrystals because the rod-shaped virus particles are arranged in only two-dimensional order (lengthwise).

All-important was Stanley's recognition that viruses could be obtained in pure form and studied by physical and chemical methods, like proteins and other simpler biologically active compounds. And, more important than this recognition, in which he was not alone, was his willingness and ability to "sell" this concept to the scientific community, and his success in overcoming the skepticism of those virologists and biologists who retained vestiges of vitalist philosophy and wanted the seemingly living viruses to retain a shroud of mystery and to resist the efforts of chemists. Concerning the question whether viruses are living or not, we now know that they carry the same principal genetic capabilities as living cells but lack all metabolic capabilities. Thus viruses need the energy and materials produced in living cells for their replication. They are half alive.


Move to the West

The next turning point for Stanley came about through another fortuitous circumstance. Gordon Sproul, president of the University of California, was looking for a man to head a new biochemistry department at Berkeley. He and Stanley met when their planes were grounded by fog, and they agreed in principle on a joint future. The creation of a separate research laboratory, the Virus Laboratory, by the California Legislature was part of the deal. In 1948 Stanley moved to Berkeley, successfully staffing both the biochemistry department and the Virus Laboratory in the course of the next 5 years.

Stanley's interest had turned from plant viruses to human pathogens, particularly influenza virus. During World War II his prime aim was the development of a vaccine against this virus. At Berkeley, research proceeded on plant, bacterial, and animal viruses; Stanley's greatest interest was in animal viruses, with poliomyelitis as the focal point. In subsequent years his interest turned more toward tumor-causing viruses. Several of these had been described as having elicited tumors in chickens or rabbits that resembled human malignant tumors. The belief that many or all malignant tumors might be due to viruses found a new proponent and prophet in Stanley. This aspect of his career received crowning recognition when he served as president of the Tenth International Cancer Congress in 1970.

Stanley received many honors and awards. Besides the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1946, shared with John Northrop and James Sumner, there was a Presidential Certificate of Merit and the Franklin Medal in 1948, an American Cancer Society award in 1959, and over a dozen honorary doctorates. Stanley retired as director of the Virus Laboratory in 1969. He died in Salamanca, Spain, on June 15, 1971.


Further Reading on Wendell Meredith Stanley

Stanley's perspective on virology is illustrated in a book by himself and Evans G. Valens, developed from a series of filmed lectures by staff members, Viruses and the Nature of Life (1961). A biographical sketch of Stanley is in Nobel Foundation, Chemistry: Including Presentation Speeches and Laureates' Biographies (3 vols., 1964-1966). Stanley's career and researches at the Rockefeller Institute are discussed in detail in George W. Corner, A History of the Rockefeller Institute, 1901-1953: Origins and Growth (1964). A more personal viewpoint is expressed by R. E. Shope in volume 5 of Perspectives in Virology (1967), an issue dedicated to Stanley. A recent textbook on molecular virology by Heinz Fraenkel-Conrat, The Chemistry and Biology of Viruses (1969), describes the development of this research field since it was opened up by Stanley in 1935.