Updated 9 June, 2003
Garrett Hardin Oral History Project
Tape 2 - Education
HARDIN: Well, I went to Bowen High School, which is out in South Chicago, where most of the people that lived out there worked in the steel mills. They were, as the name went, "polacks." I guess we would call them Poles now. A few others; there were some Germans, some Greeks, and miscellaneous others. This was farther south than we lived. We were about mid way between Bowen High School and Hyde Park High, and my mother didn't want me to go to Hyde Park High because there were so many negroes there.
RUSSELL: Did you have a preference between the two schools?
HARDIN: I had no particular reason to have a preference at all. So without thinking about it, I went where she wanted me to, naturally. As I went into high school, I suspect that I was, although I am not sure, I was more interested in science than anything else. I had for years taken Popular Science and read it from cover to cover, fascinated by it, as many boys are, and hoped to take science courses in high school. But it was a very large high school, very much overcrowded, and I didn't manage to get in many of the science courses I wanted to take. By the time I got around to sign up, the botany course was all signed up, the zoology course was signed up, and I couldn't get in. I did take physics and chemistry. I've forgotten which years these were. But the physics course, unfortunately, was taught by an old duffer, who was on his last year. And he just wasn't going to be bothered with anything. Of course, high school kids are terribly irritating, with the boys playing practical jokes, and sweet little girls giggling. He wasn't about to struggle against what was going on. So the class was an absolute shambles. I gave up trying to learn anything in physics.
Chemistry, similarly, except the woman who taught it was good,
but overloaded and tired, and that wasn't really any good either.
So what with one thing and another, I didn't get much in the way
of science in high school. The mathematics the first two years were
absolutely wasted, the teachers no good. Then, the third year, I
got the writer of the textbook, a Miss Sykes I think it was, who
wrote the textbook. She was good, and she was a disciplinarian,
in the old sense, and she knew her subject. She had the respect
of the students. Really, in one semester, I
I did get some good teachers in English and history. But I should back up a bit to my sophomore year to tell about one of the local newspapers, the Chicago Daily News, which at that time, ran pretty good competition with the Chicago Tribune, though it was an evening paper (and evening papers are always second to morning papers). We thought it was a good paper. It ran a contest on "What was Edison's greatest invention?" It was some sort of centennial, I don't know which one, maybe Edison's birth. No, it couldn't have been his centennial because he was still alive. But at any rate, some occasion. I entered the contest, and they had a number of prizes, including a grand prize, which I won. This gave me a trip, with my teacher, a week-long trip, to the East Coast to visit Edison's laboratory, meet Edison, and then go to New York and go to Washington.
RUSSELL: Did you select the teacher?
HARDIN: No, it was the teacher in whose class you had written the essay. You see, it was to motivate teachers to have their students enter the contest, which was a very good idea. There were different prizes for different grades, plus the grand prize that I won. So this was rather a nice recognition. I am sure it had some effect on my ambition, being rewarded this way. I have my photograph with Edison.
RUSSELL: Could we go over that; here you arrive at Edison's laboratory. How were you received?
HARDIN: Well, of course, he was an old man, and he was very deaf. He had been deaf since he was boxed on the ears as a boy. A very pleasant, grandfatherly old man who said some of the usual inane things, I guess. And his laboratory was interesting because it obviously was a working laboratory. I was struck with one thing in particular, and amused at the amusement of the younger people who worked with him. It was the lighting he used. He had a single bare bulb to read by, but the bulb was placed about fifteen feet up. As a matter of fact, I think it gave a very good light, but it was not at all the sort of thing the lighting experts would recommend--a bare bulb, but up high. He died the next year. This was toward the end of his life.
RUSSELL: What did he talk to you about?
HARDIN: Oh, I don't remember. You know, the sort of thing...I mean, what is there to talk about to a high school kid? Furthermore, he was quite deaf. We couldn't really carry on a conversation.It was sort of like trying to carry on a conversation with somebody in a foreign tongue when you know just a little about it. You say a few things in a loud voice, very obvious things with simple sentence construction, and that's about all you can do. The same with a very deaf person.
RUSSELL: Did you meet any of the other assistants he had there at the time?
HARDIN: Yes, but I had no idea who they were or anything.
RUSSELL: Do you remember what they were working on?
HARDIN: No. Even as a high school student I gathered that he was more a historical monument than anything else by this time. The organization went on, you know. This was the grand old man, but he really wasn't in the center of things.
RUSSELL: Were you disappointed?
HARDIN: No, I wasn't disappointed. It all seemed to me to be very natural and made sense.
RUSSELL: Now, from his laboratory, you went to Washington, D.C.?
HARDIN: I thought they were very nice, really, making a thing of the expedition, instead of just shipping me to East Orange and back. I had a day or two in New York, went to see a play or two, picked out to be as suitable as they could be for a high school student. We then went to Washington where I stayed at the Mayflower Hotel. And I saw one of the Houses of Congress, I don't remember which one now, and miscellaneous sites in Washington. So I thought, all in all, it was a very nice trip.
RUSSELL: And then back home, back to gravity?
HARDIN: Yes, that's right, back to gravity.
RUSSELL: We jumped the gun here, because what I should have asked you to begin with is, what was your paper about?
HARDIN: Oh, I did the obvious thing. One could hardly do otherwise. I selected the electric light bulb as the most important invention, you know, pointing out the importance of this to so many other aspects of society. It wasn't just a clever invention, it changed our lives. You know, my thesis was obvious. The question was, how well did I write it? Writing well was always an ambition of mine. I went to school in the days when you wrote many essays. I wrote, I expect, four or five essays a week for one class or another. Writing has pretty well disappeared from schools now. The teachers are overloaded. They themselves often cannot write. The easiest thing for them to do is to give multiple choice exams. But I wrote four or five essays a week. I liked to write. I did do a lot of writing in high school. I worked on the daily paper, and then I was the editor of the annual when I was a senior. So this aspect was the important part of my high school life, rather than science courses, which were a washout.
RUSSELL: At this time, did you continue playing the violin?
HARDIN: Well, the violin sort of petered out. As I say, I was one of these reluctant violinists...a love-hate relationship. Except the junior year, for one reason or another, I caught fire and discovered Bach's solo sonatas, six sonatas for violin, and worked very hard on those, and it did a great deal for all my violin playing. But during my senior year, when I got involved in being the editor of the annual, I asked my mother's permission to stop violin. It was just too much, which it was. She was unhappy about this, but it was the last of my violin lessons.
RUSSELL: As far as your high school career was concerned, you mentioned that you did have some good teachers in English and history. Was there one particular teacher at this time that you would like to mention?
HARDIN: Well, there was one I should mention. Incidentally, I got
a letter from him just last week. Here I am, sixty-eight years old
and still corresponding with a high school teacher. He was my most
important mentor in high school. Not altogether an admirable character,
as you will see, but an influential one.
A horrible influence for young people, one would say. Yet I don't think it corrupted me, though it did help me to understand the art of acting. Acting was just O'Keeffe's nature.
A number of years ago while on our way through Chicago, Jane and I stopped and had lunch with Adrian. We had a nice talk. Here I was then, say fifty-eight years old, something of that sort, and hadn't seen him in person for about five or ten years. We were sort of catching up on things. And, at one point, he made a remark, "You are getting near retirement, aren't you?" I laughed as I said, "Yes, but you should know." I said, "You're still teaching, so how can I be old enough to retire?" But he said, "I am younger than you are." He said it with an absolutely straight face. How could he be younger than I am, when he was my teacher in high school? But I was pretty sure when he said that, in fact, he may have been younger than I was according to the official records. O'Keeffe was always an operator. He knew a lot of people in City Hall, so I wouldn't put it past him to have had the records altered, so that they changed his age so that he could teach longer. It would be absolutely typical of him to do a thing like that. And then, with a straight face, to say he was younger than I was.
RUSSELL: Did he maintain a youthful appearance?
HARDIN: Very well, at that time. Now the last time I saw him, which was about five years ago, he's showing the signs of age, but still that isn't bad. He's been retired now for several years. And the letter I got the other day said that he is still leading tours into Canada. He has led tours in the South Pacific and many different places. So he must be pretty vigorous if he can lead the tours. You know, summer tours. Well, he was a major influence in my life. Despite his shortcomings, I am sure he was good for me. Like many people who go into science--many boys, at any rate--I was sort of weak when it came to human relations, to sensitivities to human beings and what they're doing. And you cannot learn acting without learning something of human sensitivities. You learn the tricks, but the tricks are part of human nature. First you learn the tricks, and then having learned them, you see through them. From then on, you interpret better what people are doing.
RUSSELL: Do you remember any plays that you were involved in?
HARDIN: The only one that I can really remember was The Tenth Man.
You know, many of these high school plays are typically high school
plays. They are written for high schools. There's a number of limiting
conditions that make this so. Well, The Tenth Man was different.
Our production was O'Keeffe's most successful production because
we not only did the acting for our own school, but we got invited
many other places. We even went on the road some with this, playing
out of town and in several contests. The cast became a very close-knit
group. There were, as you would expect, ten men in it, and one woman;
also the electrician, the stage manager, and the director. So it
made about fourteen or fifteen people. Fortunately the scenery requirements
were fairly simple so we could manage the staging easily.
RUSSELL: You mentioned that your mother wanted you to go to one of the southern schools.
HARDIN: Well, this had been much earlier. My mother had a fixation on sending her boys to Vanderbilt because it was a southern school. But this dream had died down long ago. When she was thinking of that, we lived in Memphis. This is before the Depression. Now this was 1932 and the Depression was well under way. And thinking of sending someone off to school--Vanderbilt, Oberlin, or wherever--was just really out of the question. So that didn't get raised at all. There was no question about the University of Chicago. So in the spring, as I said, I got these scholarships and then turned down the one to Oberlin.
Then along about June, I found that I had been awarded a scholarship
to the Drama Department of the Chicago Musical College, as a result
of the acting that I had done. This presented a real problem, because
I did like the stage--I really liked it. But since I had a limp
from polio, this meant that if I was going on the stage, I could
only play character parts or go into directing. I thought I would
like to go into directing. I considered this very seriously. When
fall came, I still hadn't made up my mind. For awhile, I was going
to both schools at once. I would go to the University of Chicago
in the daytime, and then about 4:00, I would get on the train, go
downtown and take night classes in drama at the Musical College.
This went on, oh, for about six weeks; it was insanity. Of course,
it was the sort of insanity that afflicts young boys; a monumental
ego that thinks, "I can do everything." It took me about
six weeks to discover that the University of Chicago
RUSSELL: What was it like at the acting school?
HARDIN: It was like any bunch of actors. You know, it's hard to say; it's a completely different life from the life of science. The personalities were completely different. There's a lot of shrewdness, a lot of fraud among them really. All stage work involves a tremendous waste of time. You know, it's hurry and wait, hurry and wait. Mostly, it's just wait. You wait, you wait, you wait until the scenery gets set up, then something else, and then something else. Standing around, you do a fantastic amount of standing around in all acting situations. I've forgotten the courses now, but I remember there was one in designing stage sets. You were supposed to know a little bit of everything. But I really didn't get into the profession deeply in a mere six weeks.
RUSSELL: Was it hard for you to go in and tell them you had decided to leave?
HARDIN: No. It just had to be done. There was no question about that's that.
RUSSELL: If we could backtrack a little. As you pointed out, this was the heart of the Depression. And you mentioned that you don't even remember the formal process of applying. You just sort of walked in and there you were. How did you arrive at the decision to enter the field of science?
HARDIN: Well, once I got to the University of Chicago, I still
had trouble with settling on a career. Fortunately--this I am very
grateful to the institution for--it had a set-up that allowed some
time for thinking. They were under what was then called the "New
Plan." This was the first of several new plans. It involved
taking each year two survey courses and then two non-survey courses.
So there were a total of four survey courses you had to take--two
in the freshman year and two in the sophomore year. They were in
the biological sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, and
humanities. They were really first-rate courses because the two
presidents--this had been started before Hutchins came, and then
was continued by him--involved were determined that the best faculty
would teach the survey courses, and they did. The courses weren't
shucked off on to second-raters. They were really first-rate people
in the departments, and very good courses. My freshman year, I took
the biology, and I guess I took the humanities. But the U of C also
had a system in which the only exams that counted were the comprehensive
exams in June--a six hour exam for each course. In six hours, they
can find out an awful lot of what you know. They were beautifully
written exams, by the way, they were masterpieces of the examining
art. But, fall quarter, after
RUSSELL: Do you remember the two professors you had during your freshman year?
HARDIN: Well, there was a stable of professors. I remember many
of them. Each lecturer would lecture about three weeks typically--three
or four weeks--and then another one. And then you had a discussion
leader who stayed with you all year long. He would be a junior member
of one of the departments. In the case of biology, I remember the
discussion leader very well, Strandskov, a geneticist. Not inspiring,
but sound. I remember him quite well. Some of the other discussion
leaders I don't remember too well, but then I didn't go to many
of the discussions. As I said, I was pretty conceited, so I didn't
go to the humanities the rest of the year. Took the exam in June
and got an "A." Because, you see, high school, for me,
had been all humanities. One way or the other, I had picked most
of this up. About the only thing that I had to read for the university
course was Gardner's Art Through the Ages, because I hadn't had
anything like that in high school. I just filled in the gaps. I
had the syllabus. I had the reading list. I read the things I didn't
know about, and that was it. I also did this with the physical sciences
because I was taking chemistry and I thought, "Well, I ought
to be able to fill in the gaps here too." I didn't do so well
in that. I got a "B" in physical science. Social science?
What did I do about that? I think I dropped it, too, and just took
the exam. So it was a great system for a person who was disciplined
enough to make himself study. At one point, an older friend in college
was going to take his exam in reading French for his Ph.D., and
I decided to go along with him and take it, too. So I did. I passed
my reading exam for French in my sophomore year. Not that it did
me any good; it was a perfectly silly thing to do. But I thought,
"Why not?" I liked taking exams.
RUSSELL: Was he a European?
HARDIN: No, American. But, of course, it's a German name. But a
terrific teacher. Of course, for a while I thought, "Gee, maybe
I ought to go into geology." I sure loved it. But I thought
that would be insanity because if there's one thing the geologists
prided themselves on, it was machismo in the field. Walk, walk,
walk, miles up hill and down dale. I couldn't possibly do that,
yet that was a central part of being a geologist, being a great
outdoor man. Even if you eventually ended up indoors, you still
had to serve an apprenticeship outdoors. So I dropped geology as
Chemistry. I took this in the beginning of the freshman year, because when people asked, "What are you going to be when you grow up? What are you going to do?" Well, somewhere along the line somebody mentioned chemistry, and that got hung on me in the family. So rather than fight it, I just said I was going to become a chemist. I didn't have any particular joy in thinking about chemistry, but you have to say something. Of course, all high school-aged people have this embarrassing position. I mean, it's grown folks that put them in this position. So I was theoretically going to become a chemist, until I took my first quarter of chemistry and decided "NO!" Never in a thousand years! I will not become a chemist!
That left me adrift. That is why I took more and more courses.
But the freshman biology sequence which I took was a beautiful course;
so then I took what they called the sophomore sequence--three courses,
not integrated with each other, but each one a good course--botany,
zoology, and physiology. Each one very well taught. And it wasn't
until I got through with my sophomore year, partly as the result
of a sort of personal relationship with the zoology instructor,
that I decided, well, I'll go into biology.
RUSSELL: Before we get to graduate school, besides this one teaching assistant, were there any professors in the Zoology Department that influenced you?
HARDIN: Yes, several. W. C. Allee was one of the early ecologists in this country. A person of very high standing, a Quaker, and one of these exceedingly upright men. I have very high regard for Quakers. I have had a number of Quaker friends throughout my life, and I must say this religion really turns out a fine sort of person. As my mentor in zoology Allee had a great influence on me.
Also, Sewell Wright, a geneticist and a real brain--extremely brilliant man, but a shy man. I wouldn't call him a good lecturer, but since he was so brilliant, he made you really stretch to keep up with him. He wasn't trying to do this for disciplinary reasons or anything. This was the only way he knew how to teach. So he would be writing equations on the board all hour and you would be sitting there copying these things down, because there was no book that had the same material. You had to be very alert because every once in a while, someone would say, "Oh, Professor Wright, that fifth equation, shouldn't that be minus rather than plus?" He'd look and then he'd say, "Oh, yes, yes, yes." And then he would change the sign; he was constantly making mistakes...constantly. But it was out of sheer nervousness. He knew perfectly well what it was. In fact, some of the mathematics that he gave us, he had originated himself. He originated the method of path coefficients, which no one realized the importance of in those days. Now, it's a major method in statistics, particularly for the social sciences. He knew his stuff. But he was just too shy to be able to write things down correctly, because he got nervous while he was writing on the board. Well, that kept the student alert, because it was always possible that your notes were in error. You had to work them over after class, and maybe come back the next day with a question of this sort and get it corrected.
RUSSELL: So there was no yawning in that class.
HARDIN: No, there was no yawning in that class. And Alfred Emerson, who was a termite specialist--a very decent guy, a very friendly person, closer than most of the professors in zoology to the students. Emerson wasn't much younger than Wright, just more friendly and at ease.
RUSSELL: Did you get to know him quite well?
HARDIN: Got to know him quite well, yes.
RUSSELL: Before moving on to graduate school, there is probably one additional thing we should probably touch upon. And that is what it was like to be a student at a university during the Depression?
HARDIN: Here's a curious thing, the Depression affected me very little. I sort of lived in an intellectual world and a world in which I didn't worry about practical things. This is curious. I mean, in a way, much of my life, I have acted like someone who is rich, but who in fact is not. God knows, I didn't have much money; my folks didn't give me much money by way of an allowance. My allowance when I was in high school was $1.00 per week, and it cost 70 cents a week to go to and from high school on the street car. That left 30 cents. By walking home, I got another 35 cents, so that left 65 cents to squander when I was in high school. In college, I don't remember; it wasn't much more. I mean, I had my car fare and a dollar or two more, and that's all. So I never had any money. Yet, on the other hand, I never felt in need.
RUSSELL: So you lived at home during this time period?
HARDIN: Yes, I lived at home, and I never felt any particular need of money. I wasn't worried what the future...I had no idea, I didn't worry about it. I just went on doing my thing at all times, so, whereas other people may have been severely affected by the Depression, I wasn't. We didn't have any very bad experience in our family. My father's salary was cut, but even after being cut, he was doing better than many people were, because we managed without any trauma to get through.
RUSSELL: From the academic perspective, how would you rate your generation of underclassmen?
HARDIN: Your question brings up not only the time, but the place. I went to the University of Chicago, which had a tradition for intellectualism from the beginning. When I was in school there, the big headlines on the daily paper had to do with Plato and Aristotle, not the football team. Fights over the place of Plato and Aristotle in the modern world. Such were the banners on the college paper. And battles over Mortimer J. Adler. Adler, you see, was one of Hutchins' class buddies and meant a great deal to him, no question about that. So, when Hutchins came to Chicago, he brought Adler with him and put him in the Philosophy Department. The Philosophy Department simply exploded; they were not going to have this man. And he said they were; he was President, and that was that. About half the senior members of the Philosophy Department resigned and went elsewhere, rather than put up with this.
RUSSELL: Was this when you were an undergraduate?
HARDIN: Yes, this was when I was an undergraduate. Actually, in the long run, I think it was good for the Philosophy Department because most of the people who resigned had a great future behind them. The department then hired a bunch of younger people and, within five years, the Philosophy Department was on top again. So it was a good thing.
RUSSELL: I remember reading his How to Read A Book. He started the Great Books Concept at Columbia with Van Doren. Did you take any of his courses?
HARDIN: I eventually took Hutchins' and Adler's course. I was still following my brother's advice to study with stimulating teachers. Hutchins was sort of the silent partner. He would just put in his time in class, but always alert. He let Adler run the show. Well, Adler was one of the great teachers of my life; he was absolutely splendid. And, in this course, you really learned how to read a book. The title of his book is almost contradictory, because how can you read a book if you don't know how yet? But in that class, we really learned how. It was marvelous for developing critical readers.
RUSSELL: What did he impart to you, as far as your critical analysis was concerned?
HARDIN: Well, just that: how to read a book! I took the course for one quarter and then I started through the second quarter, when we moved on to some Roman philosophers. At that point, I decided this was a bunch of crap. And so I dropped the thing. By this time, as I said, I had immense admiration for Adler in a way, but also a bit in the way of contempt. I think philosophically, he's just completely wrong. I mean, the scholastic tradition was well and properly buried long before Adler was born. The things he takes seriously I can't take seriously. I think he is fundamentally wrong. But God, what a marvelous teacher! I mean, it's curious; for a person to be a great teacher and to have a great influence in your life does not mean that he has to be admirable in all respects. Remember my high school teacher, O'Keeffe, with his serious personal faults. But he had other things about him that made him worthwhile. Adler, I think, was intellectually a sort of fraud--a very brilliant fraud, but a fraud nonetheless. I think so to this day. But I am delighted I took his course. It was one of the great courses I took.
In university, I had three superbly great teachers. One of them was J. Harlan Bretz, who taught geology (which was not for me). The second one was Adler, who taught, you would have to say, philosophy, though most of it was nonsense. That wasn't for me either. My third one I encountered in my graduate career. I don't know if you want to get into that yet, but I will just mention him: C. B. van Niel, who taught microbiology at Stanford. He was the greatest of them all by far. I have been fortunate enough to have had three great teachers. By my standards, I am acutely aware that the vast majority of people, and I mean 99 percent of those who go to college, never encounter even one great teacher. Every one of the three I had, I had because I went out of my way to study under them. They were not in the path of my work; they were to one side.
RUSSELL: From your perspective, what actually constitutes a great teacher?
HARDIN: Being on top of subject. I mean being really on top of it. All three of my teachers were superbly on top. They knew what they were doing. It might not be all the knowledge in the world, but that bit of knowledge they really knew. And they knew it backward and forward. You could come in by any side door you wanted to and the master would meet you there because he had been through that door before himself.
RUSSELL: Did they offer a special challenge to the mind?
HARDIN: Well, with every one of the three, every minute in class was high in excitement. Your blood pressure went up and it never came down because jab, jab, jab. You had to be alert all the time.
RUSSELL: Did all three of them use the Socratic method? Was it a dialogue?
HARDIN: All three of them used the Socratic method. I don't mean there can't be other kinds of teaching; I had a number of teachers who were superb lecturers, as I mentioned. Lecturing is a fine art form, too. But it's utterly different. And, for the most part, it doesn't excite me as much as the Socratic method, because the Socratic method is always open-ended. By contrast, the man who gives a beautifully organized lecture determines the whole course of events by himself. The moment you start on the Socratic method, you don't know where it's going to end up and you have to be prepared, no matter what the student says. To ask the next question that leads him the next step or leads him back to the path. Whatever it is. So it requires an immensely more complete grasp of the material. Socratic teaching is inherently dramatic. I like dramatic things. Following this path there was always suspense. The student constantly is wondering: "How will he pull the next rabbit out of the hat?"
RUSSELL: I remember listening to [Carl] Van Doren give a talk on this subject. And he said that when they first started the Great Books Course at Columbia, he was using crib notes. And to his dismay, he found that about three quarters through the course, the students were doing the same thing he was doing. They were just parroting back these things to one another. And there was absolutely no learning.
HARDIN: Of course, that's right.
RUSSELL: So these were the three teachers you would want to single out?
HARDIN: Yes, they had the greatest influence over me intellectually and in many other ways, too.
RUSSELL: As far as selecting a graduate school, what options did you have after finishing your undergraduate work?
HARDIN: Oh, brother! My life has been a very poor example, if you are trying to tell young people that they should plan their lives carefully. Because nothing important that I have ever done has been the result of my planning. I have just fallen into things. I have been lucky. When I finished my undergraduate career at Chicago, I was planning to go on to graduate work. Fortunately, I had a fellowship. I was going to work under W. C. Allee. And that was that. Now he was not an inspiring teacher; he was a good sound man, but nothing of the dramatic. He wasn't a thrilling person to be with. But he was a sound man.
RUSSELL: What aspect of biology did you intend to study?
HARDIN: Behavior studies. Allee was actually an ecologist. So I was planning to go into graduate work. But I wasn't too happy about this, because I really wanted to get away from home. Now, I had no particular get up and go. If I had, I probably would have found out how to do this, and I did write to Williams College where I heard there might be an opening for a teaching assistant. Williams was not a graduate school, but I thought it might be good to make a little money for a year or two. To show how naive I was at this stage of my life, I just applied on my own, without sponsorship, without checking with any of my mentors. I didn't understand the system. In those days you didn't apply on your own, you got recommended by someone. News of what I had done presently filtered back to the Zoology Department and Emerson wrote a strong recommendation for me. He was a little miffed when I didn't get the position. He said he was sure they didn't get the best man. He was nice and supportive about that.
Emerson and Allee were close personal friends. Word of what I had done got to Allee, too, so he knew of my desire along in the summer. I got my degree in June. About the middle of August, I got a telegram from Allee, who went every summer to Woods Hole, a great gathering place for biologists. He was there, I think, every summer. The telegram said that Dr. Willis Johnson had need for a full-time research assistant at Stanford University. He would be passing through Chicago ten days from now, would I be interested in seeing him? I wired back immediately, "Yes." I would meet him at such and such a place. Having said I would be interested, I then went to the encyclopedia to find out whether Stanford was in Connecticut or California. My main aim was to get away from home, no matter what. I was going to go to Stanford no matter where it was. And I knew nothing about Stanford. Nothing. Nothing about Johnson, who, for a matter of fact, was too young to be well known then anyway. So I met him; he seemed like a nice guy. He offered me the job; I accepted. And that's how it happened that I came to Stanford. Now you see how carefully I planned my life!
RUSSELL: Were you somewhat apprehensive about breaking the news to your mother and father?
HARDIN: No. I was sort of the typical, selfish, self-centered youth. I didn't think about them very much. And they were admirable parents. They never raised any objections.
It was only years later that I came to realize how much concern my life must have been to my mother for many years. She didn't say anything. All this time, they never asked me what I was going to do, what I was going to become, or asked, "When are you going to get out and make some money?" Never. I mean, if I was going to go to graduate school, okay, they would support me through graduate school. Never any question of practicality or anything.
RUSSELL: What did you think of Johnson when you first met him?
HARDIN: Well, he seemed like a nice guy and that's about all one could say about him. And to the end this was true. I got my degree under him. Academically, this was a mistake. Well, perhaps we will get around to this later.
RUSSELL: How did you get to Stanford? Did you take a train out?
HARDIN: Let me first say a few words about traveling. Going to strange places never bothered me because I did this all my life. Since my father worked for the railroad, I got free annual passes on all the roads. When I was 12 years old, I sat down and figured out that I had traveled enough on the train to have gone around the world by that time. I did a lot more traveling after age 12, because I was getting up to the age when I could go by myself. So I did a lot of traveling by myself. And, for instance...
RUSSELL: Did you map out your trip to the West coast?
HARDIN: Well, I wanted to have a car. And so I bought a car. How I had managed to save that amount of money, I don't know; it cost $200.00. Where did I get that money? I guess I had saved it from working on the farm. Because I did make money in the summer time working on the farm, and I guess that's where I got it. So I paid $200.00 for a five-year old Chrysler sedan. I put a notice on the bulletin board at the University, saying I wanted someone to share the driving. And I certainly gave him a bargain. All my passenger would have to pay was $15 for his share of the gas, and share in the driving. I found a fellow from the "other side of the campus;" the business school, I think, who had never been west of Pittsburgh until he came to Chicago. As for me, I had been west before; to Salt Lake City, for example, shortly before. I had seen quite a bit of the West. I liked it, but it wasn't as new to me as it was to my passenger. It was so wonderful having him along, because he was just astonished; he didn't know about these things. I remember particularly going to Kansas City, because I wanted to drive through it, since I had grown up there. I was most pleased to hear his expressions of delight. He thought this was the most beautiful city he had ever seen. Imagine, an Easterner saying Kansas City was the most beautiful of cities! I had really never ever thought of it that way before.
I remember once in Colorado, in a small town down near Wolf Creek Pass, we stopped in a bar, a real old western bar, and by gosh, if the guy next to us, talking to us, wasn't a grub staker. I could hardly pull my mate away from there; he just wanted to hear that guy talk forever. He didn't think such people existed. I knew they existed. So it was a nice trip. We drove slowly and then when we got to Boulder Dam, as it was called then--since then the name Hoover Dam has been reattached to it--at that point my eight-cylinder car was hitting on about five cylinders. Oh, boy. So we had to stop and have the engine worked on--the cost of which came out of my pocket, of course--before we could complete the trip to the West Coast. I dropped my passenger somewhere--Los Angeles or San Francisco. He was going to make his way back home. On this trip we had taken sleeping bags. We slept out whenever we could, which was most of the time. Sometimes we got wet, but it was still a nice trip. But for me, it was a great adventure. I was on my way to make my fortune, so to speak. I had a job that paid money.
RUSSELL: What was your salary, if you don't mind my asking?
HARDIN: My first position was a pure research position. And, let
me think now just a minute--no, it was not full-time, it was half-time.
It was half-time and it paid $600.00 a year for half-time. And I
could take courses at Stanford, half-time courses, at the same time.
So that was it, $600.00 per year.
RUSSELL: Did Johnson know about your financial crisis?
HARDIN: He may have known it. He was really very good with young people. He knew when you should be aware of things and when you shouldn't. I think he knew it. For instance, using the showers was improper. But, it's better not to know things like that. Just pretend you don't see.
RUSSELL: What was your position like under Johnson? As you said, you were there to do research. What were you actually working on?
HARDIN: Well, working with protozoa. We were following up an old argument in population. From the very beginning, I was working on the question: "What limits the growth of the population of paramecium?" Is it limited by the waste products they produce themselves, or something else? To settle this, Johnson was growing the paramecia in a fixed volume of fluid. Every three or four days, I would count the paramecia by removing them and then returning them to the same vessel. At that point, I would have to add a little fresh fluid to bring the volume back up to the original.
The idea was to see if the accumulating waste products eventually slowed down the rate of fission to zero. The experiment had been designed by Johnson. I did most of the physical work, but Johnson, who was a nice guy, would spell me when I wanted to take a short vacation. We were at this the entire academic year. It was not inspiring research. By spring, I decided I had it up to here with that experiment. It wasn't a good experiment; it just didn't seem to me to be exciting enough and worth all that time.
RUSSELL: What conclusions did he draw from your work?
HARDIN: The conclusion was that the protozoa were not inhibited by their own waste products, because the reproduction rate remained the same throughout all this time. We were working on the paper when I left. By spring, I decided I was through and I resigned. And I said, "I am going back to the University of Chicago and take some other courses." This was really a traumatic affair: to have done a year of graduate work and still not know what the hell I was going to do with my life. It must have been hell for my parents. They must have been saying to themselves, "What is going to happen to our boy?" But they spoke never a word of their doubts to me.
When I got back to the University of Chicago, the first thing I did was go around to Allee's office. You see, Johnson had been a student of Allee's earlier, and he was the one who put Johnson on to me and me on to Johnson. Mutual obligations: where did I fit in?
I went to Allee's office. Allee had a face sort of like the face
of the man in the moon. Allee began immediately: "Let me say,
first, that I do not approve of what you have done." He spoke
in that vein for about five minutes, his face serious. Then, with
a sweet smile, he said: "That's enough: Now what are you going
I started taking courses in philosophy. And it was then that I
took the Hutchins and Adler course. And Allee lined up a job for
me teaching at a junior college, as a teaching assistant again.
He really looked out for me; no hard feelings or anything.
By now, the paramecium paper had been written up by Johnson. He
had sent me a copy of it just as I was starting my work at the University
of Chicago. Both our names were on it. Reading it over, I suddenly
saw what went wrong with the design of the experiment. I suddenly
saw that what I had learned about series in mathematics had a practical
and decisive application to the design of our experiment. Our method
of counting and washing the animals, and adding a tiny bit of new
fluid each cycle meant that we were summing up an infinite series
of fractional numbers less than unity. This meant that the putative
waste products were not increasing toward infinity but only toward
a finite number, as an asymptote. This meant that the conclusion
that the indefinite increase in waste products was of no importance--this
conclusion was not justified. Since we were adding about 10 percent
new material each time, we were losing 10 percent of the waste products.
This meant that the concentration of waste products could never
rise higher than 9 times the amount produced in one cycle. But you
have to work through the mathematics to realize how flawed the experiment
So I equivocated. I wrote out the correct mathematical analysis in the form of a footnote, which Johnson agreed to add to the paper. To the casual reader, our paper looked like a standard paper. But to anyone who is mathematically alert the footnote, in effect, negates everything else. Whether Johnson realized this, I never knew. We never talked about the matter.
RUSSELL: Since the experiment was flawed, I can see why you didn't want to continue with him. And in a sense, you had surpassed him.
HARDIN: Yes, but I still stayed with him out of a feeling of loyalty. And this, I feel may have been a mistake, since it was because of my connection with Allee that I remained with him. You know, it's like things in the family. There was a certain loyalty and I stayed on as his graduate student clear to the end.
Now I think I might have left him under certain circumstances,
but things didn't turn out just right when I went back home. In
the year I had been away, George Beadle came to Stanford as a promising
young geneticist. And when I got back, he was teaching a genetics
course which I took. Then later, I became his teaching assistant,
which was unusual; you almost always have as your teaching assistant
one who is majoring under you. But he made me teaching assistant,
which was very nice of him, instead of one of his own students.
I have immense respect for Beadle. But I didn't like the work he
was doing. And I just couldn't get excited about it. I didn't see
the real excitement of it at that time. I did two or three years
later. But by the time I did, it was too late, you see. So, though
I immensely liked him personally, I didn't like the sort of problems
he worked on, whereas I had fallen in love with the protozoa.
Incidentally, there is an amusing story there. First of all, he
made things very easy for me; he made me number one teaching assistant
and then he gave me assistants. So I didn't have to do anything
except direct the others. All of the dog's work, they did. I told
them what to do. He told me what he wanted, and I told them what
to do, and it was done. It was an easy job.
Wednesday came. I climbed to the second floor of Jordan Hall where
the lecture was, and who should walk in the door but George Wells
Beadle himself. He said, "Hey, they canceled that seminar at
Berkeley--postponed it. You wouldn't mind if I sat in on your lecture,
would you?" I said, "Be my guest."
RUSSELL: So these were the two people at Stanford that influenced your career the most.
HARDIN: No, the one who influenced me the most was C. B. van Niel. Now, C. B. van Niel was not on the main campus, but at Hopkins Marine Station, which is sixty or seventy miles away, down at Pacific Grove. Hopkins Marine Station had courses daily in the summer time. van Niel taught only one course each summer and that was all the teaching he did for the year. Among those with experience he had the reputation for being the world's greatest teacher, so I decided--in keeping with the advice I had been following all these years--I decided, "I've got to take his course." I knew it was largely biochemistry, which is no enthusiasm of mine. But again, I felt I had to take his course because of all the things I had heard about it. So I went down, I guess it was the summer of '38, maybe '39, and took the course. No, it must have been '39. The year I took it there were only four students. The war was coming on, the military draft and all that.
van Niel, by the way, had come to Hopkins Marine Station from Holland. I think about 1933 or 1934. This was his first university position. He was a full professor from the beginning.
He wrote a Ph.D. thesis which is a collector's item. People fight for it. Imagine! A Ph.D. thesis that is a classic!
RUSSELL: Was it ever published?
HARDIN: Yes, it was published. In the Dutch system, they have to publish their theses; they have to be printed as regular books. It must be a very expensive thing for a Ph.D. candidate. It was published as a regular book, but not many copies, and a scarce thing: The Propionic Acid Bacteria, immediately regarded as a great classic because he had answered all the questions. He was a chemist, and was appointed Professor of Biology. It shows what people thought of him from a very young age. And he went to Hopkins Marine Station. His reputation was worldwide at this time in the area of biochemistry. Harvard, several times, tried to get him; he wouldn't go. Because he had everything just the way he wanted it in Pacific Grove. He had the world with a fence around it, just what he wanted. For one thing, he liked quiet surroundings. And believe me, Pacific Grove was a quiet place in those days. He could work there without being under any pressure. He felt he just didn't want to go to Harvard or any place else.
RUSSELL: What was your first encounter with him like?
HARDIN: Well, anyone's first encounter with van Niel, I can only say, is electrifying. You never forget it. I heard him give a lecture on campus. I had already heard of him. He would come up and give about one lecture per year on campus on some occasion or another. He is the rare bug who is the perfect Socratic teacher and also the perfect lecturer. He is the only man I have ever known to combine both qualities in one person. He is just incredible. You never forget it.
So I went down and took his course. I am going to take some time discussing the experience, because he is one of the great natural resources of the United States.
As I told you, there were only four students when I took the class.
He had a limit of twelve; he had had something like that number
a year or two earlier, but the number had fallen off because of
the draft. Only four students were taking it my year. After the
war, when things started up again, students came in droves from
all over the world, literally. (Even in my four-student class, one
was from Denmark: Herman Kalkar, who already had his Ph. D.)
RUSSELL: How was the course structured?
HARDIN: It met three times a week--Monday, Wednesday, Friday this week; Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday the next week. This is the way they alternated down at the Marine Station; it wasn't just his course--all the courses alternated this way. van Niel's class started at one o'clock and went until you were through, whatever that meant.
His basic way of teaching was by Socratic method. And he was a
master of this method--far greater than Bretz or Adler. They were
great, both of them, but he was greater. Just an absolute master
of the Socratic method. Starting with nearly complete ignorance
we dragged the truth out of nature. We would start with what we
knew, where we were at the present time. After a great deal of give
and take we would realize that, well, we can't go any farther by
this route. So either of two things would happen: either van Niel
would give us one of his rare and superlative lectures, or we would
design some experiments.
RUSSELL: Would he allow you to make a mistake or pursue a sterile line of inquiry?
HARDIN: No, because we were doing this as a class. Oh, he would allow us to make mistakes, but we corrected them as a class. One person would make a mistake and someone else would correct it. You had every opportunity to do that. But the thing is, we would design the experiments on the basis of reasoning; then we would do the experiments. Then, when we got to the place where we couldn't really design another experiment without knowing more, then--every now and then--he would give a lecture.
The class started at one o'clock; we stopped at four for tea. Four-thirty we came back and started in again. Several times at seven o'clock at night, or eight o'clock at night, we would arrive at the point where the only thing now was to have a lecture. No other way to do it. I've heard that man give a three-hour lecture at the conclusion of which I would swear only ten minutes had passed. By this time in my career, I was allergic to lectures; I had had so many of them. But the absolutely rivetting dynamism of the man was incredible. Kalkar, the Ph.D. from Denmark, lived with his wife in "Trimmer Hill," the rooming house I lived in. We would go back to the rooming house 10, 11, 12 o'clock at night to find that the cook had kindly set aside some food for us in the warming oven. And we could scarcely eat. The reverberations from the excitement of the class were too much.
RUSSELL: Who were the other people in the class?
HARDIN: Yes, there was Fred Teloniker, a faculty member up at Arcata. Humboldt State College. An older man, a very nice guy, Greek. Not brainy, just nice. He taught biology and he was also coach for the basketball team. And he had been a coach for the Olympic team in 1936, so he must have been pretty good. Then there was a little fellow named Lewis; he was a pre-med student. He was more interested in grades than anything else. He was bright enough, but he had no real intellectual interest. And myself, and that was all.
RUSSELL: What was Kalkar's academic standing?
HARDIN: He had already received his advanced degree. He came just because of the reputation of the course. He had received an advanced degree in the very subject van Niel taught; he supposedly knew all this. He had even worked with Warburg, who was a Nobel Prize winner. Herman said things looked completely different with van Niel--insights, marvelous. For Kalkar, this amounted to an elementary course in biochemistry, but he was seeing many things for the first time--he who was supposedly a completely trained man. Oh, van Niel is absolutely astonishing.
The practice of his graduate students is revealing. When summer came, whatever they had been doing was put on the back burner so that they could sit in on van Niel's course again and see how it is that he pedagogically pulls those rabbits out of the hat. They saw it last year, and they still don't believe it. As with a professional magician they wondered how he could possibly do it. So they sat in again, listening, listening, listening.
RUSSELL: How many times did you take it?
HARDIN: Oh, I went to it only once. I wasn't down at the Marine Station as a regular thing, because I wasn't his graduate student.
RUSSELL: Have you stayed in contact with him?
HARDIN: Yes, I have remained a friend of his and have been in occasional contact with him. Not as close as with Beadle, but I have managed to see him as a friend on a number of other occasions. I remember one time I was staying at his house for a weekend and three or four of the other graduate students were there. One night one of them was talking about having been up at the Hooper Foundation. I don't know if you know this, but this is a branch of the University of California; it's a special foundation in the Medical School in San Francisco. It has it's own sort of endowment. The Hooper specializes in work on parasitic diseases. Stan Carson had been up there seeing a man whose name I've forgotten, but he was very well known; in fact, he was the director. Stan was talking about this tremendous filing system the director had; his card files covered all of one wall. Of course, he had to have a secretary or two to keep things in order. As Carson was telling about this van Niel's eyes grew bigger and bigger. At last van Niel burst out, "But Stan, that won't do! You have to have all that in your head!" Coming from anyone else, that would have been ridiculous, but not from him. Let me tell you why. I have seen him do this. You bring up a subject that is not his subject at all, something to do with biology. At some point he will interrupt to say, "Well, you really should see what XYZ says about this. This is in the Archiv fur Mikrobiologie, volume 107, page 42, the top of the page." You must realize that the main subject of the paper is different from that of the conversation. No one has been talking about it. Yet van Niel has instantly seen the relevance. And so, you think, van Niel is bluffing. So you go to the library; and there, at the top of page 42, is the very passage he mentioned. Even in fields not his own he could recall accurately items of subtle relevance.
RUSSELL: A photographic mind?
HARDIN: A photographic mind, but the beauty of it is, it isn't just photographic. It's a memory in terms of relevance at the most profound level, because the things that he tells you about turn out to have great, but not obvious, relevance. And he puts you on to it. Not many abstracting systems could do it!
RUSSELL: What was his reaction to your work with paramecia?
HARDIN: I never brought the subject up with him. I would like to
have worked with him, but I realized this was out of the question.
As much as my working with Bretz, the geologist. van Niel was a
chemist through and through. I wasn't a chemist. As of today, most
of the chemistry I know, I learned in that one quarter with van
Niel. But, I wasn't up to being his graduate student.
If he had played the standard academic game...if he had gone to Harvard or Cambridge, or some place like that, I am sure he would have gotten the Nobel Prize. but he wouldn't play that game. He just loved doing his thing the way he wanted to. He turned out, typically, only one paper every two years. There was a pattern to his work.
I was asking him about the pattern and pacing of his work. He said,
"Well, you know, I do these experiments. Typically, at the
end of a year and a half, everything finally becomes clear. Then
on the last month or two, I repeat all the essential experiments,
in logical order. Then I write it up. That's two years."
RUSSELL: That's very rare.
HARDIN: Very rare. When you read one of his scientific papers you see the beauty even if you don't understand the science. It is just beautiful the way that he does it. His typical accomplishment was the following. He would take a field that had been a controversial one, beset by an issue that people hadn't settled. In just two years' time, he would settle it so thoroughly that no one would enter that field again. His paper was the definitive paper that ended research in that field. It's just unbelievable.
RUSSELL: As a genius, did he have any unusual quirks, like Einstein? Or unusual traits, like forgetfulness?
HARDIN: I don't know of any, certainly no forgetfulness that I have ever seen. The basic impression he gave was of a man who has got his "A" string tuned up not to 440, but to about 480, just tighter than anyone else's. The tension he exuded was terrifying.
RUSSELL: Nervous energy?
HARDIN: Nervous energy. He bit his fingernails. He smoked cigarettes--he was a chain-smoker. Signs of great nervousness at all times. And always on top of things. Before a public lecture he was giving at Stanford, I once made the mistake of making some sort of joshing remark. God, he blazed out at me! Before a lecture--for an hour or two before a lecture--he doesn't want anyone to say anything to him, while he walks back and forth and thinks. You see, he never has a note before him. As far as I know, he never even makes a note. Then he delivers the lecture letter-perfect, one stage after another. He enters a public lecture practically ready to collapse from tension. But he never does.
RUSSELL: Amazing. Like the composer of a symphony.
HARDIN: Yes, that's right! Incidentally, one of the curious things that I found out as I became acquainted with him: he also plays the violin, and he also debated a long time before not going on the stage. The rub was that he was better at everything than I could possibly be. What would have happened if he had gone on the stage? One wonders. On the other hand many of his friends recognized that he always was on the stage--in front of his class!
HARDIN: The perfect performance, but the tension was like a stage performance.
RUSSELL: So you spent that one summer with him?
HARDIN: That one summer, that was the only time I had close contact
with him on a daily basis. After that, as a friend, I occasionally
visited him and stayed at his home.