Inside Salk; Salk Insitute

Marguerite Vogt (1913-2007)

Colleagues and friends share their fondest memories of Salk's longest working scientist

Nearly 100 three-ring binders line the shelves in Marguerite Vogt's office at the Salk Institute. They are filled with her notes on experiments during the 42 years she worked there – some from even before. The first page of each includes the date, the stated problem, and her results. Nearby is a four-drawer filing cabinet that archives her correspondence with fellow scientists.

"I've seen the names of a lot of people who are famous in those letters," says Candy Haggblom, who was Marguerite's laboratory assistant for the last three decades of the professor's career. "In a way, going through them is like reading a history of science."

Marguerite, along with her sister, Marthe, was raised by her German parents, Oskar and Cecile Vogt, to be an impeccable biologist. She was wholly dedicated to this endeavor. She worked long hours and always at the bench, even until she was well into her 80s. And when she stopped doing research in the late 1990s, Marguerite continued to show up daily at the laboratory to read and discuss the latest publications with her colleagues.

She died on July 6 at age 94, following an 80-year career marked by numerous important scientific discoveries and collaborations. She helped train scores of young scientists during that time, four of whom went on to receive the Nobel Prize. Collaborations with Nobel Laureate Renato Dulbecco, also a long-time Salk investigator, changed how both viruses and cancer are studied.

The team first described how the polio virus forms plaques in cell cultures – work that transformed virology from a descriptive to a quantitative science – and then how a virus can turn a cell cancerous. Their studies provided some of the first clues to the genetic nature of cancer. They continued working together for 18 years and developed a strong friendship during that time, Dulbecco says.

Marguerite never received major awards or invitations to honor societies for her scientific contributions. But she didn't seem to mind, once telling a reporter from The New York Times in 2001: "I'm happy not to have been bothered. When you get too famous, you stop being able to work."

"She was a wonderful scientist," says Inder Verma, who met Marguerite during a summer in the tumor virology laboratory at Salk, and who later joined her on the Salk faculty. "She was the person who everybody went to for guidance on tissue culture and tumor viruses, and she was absolutely passionate about science and helping others to do excellent science. She was engaged completely. This is a unique characteristic."

Marguerite is said to have had a green thumb with tissue culture, the secret to which may have been her ability to maintain a sterile environment. Teaching the related procedures, she insisted that others follow her example precisely, down to which hand held a pipette and which finger pushed the plunger.

She was also particular on how the numbers were to be written on test tubes, and how to annotate the work. Though it may have seemed a nuisance at the time they were learning her process, many of her students continue to use it today.

"She was so patient," recalls Duke University professor Dona Chikaraishi, who first met Marguerite when she joined Dulbecco's lab as graduate student in 1969. Chikaraishi remembers how her first attempt at tissue culture ended with bacterial contamination.

"It happens to everybody," she says Marguerite told her, "but it doesn't pay to try and figure out why it happened. The best thing is to just throw out your cells and start again."

This philosophy was also a precept for Marguerite's life. She didn't like to talk about the past, but preferred to focus on the future. And she subjugated whatever tinges of personal ambition she may have felt because she believed contributing to the broader knowledge base through discovery–whether her own or that of a fellow scientist–was far more important, say those who knew her best.

"Marguerite had unwavering integrity," says University of California, San Diego, research scientist Katherine Koch, who met her as a graduate student at Salk in 1972. "Working at the bench herself with a few people at a time allowed her more control of the quality of research, to which her ground-breaking publications attest."

Marguerite particularly enjoyed helping scientists who were just getting started in their careers. Jakob Bogenberger was one such researcher who worked at Stanford University and in private industry before retiring.

He trained at Salk as a visiting post-doc from Germany in the mid-1980s and got first-hand experience of Marguerite's generosity after wrecking his car in a traffic accident. To make sure he could continue coming to work, she bought him another vehicle.

"She was extremely good at defining her interests in life and making sure she could live her life as she wanted to," Bogenberger remembers of Marguerite. "Anything she didn't need, she gave away."

Susan Swift, who worked as Marguerite's lab technician for 11 years, says she learned what it was like to be an old-fashioned scientist, one who's slow, methodical and pays strict attention to detail. But she's also appreciative of the German lessons Marguerite gave her, an attempt to help Swift with basic conversation when visiting Bogenberger in Germany later on. The couple eventually married.

Memories such as these, filled with respect and gratitude, are pervasive among the colleagues who Marguerite adopted as a surrogate family, regardless of their rank in the lab. They are what Haggblom was thinking of as she was helping to clean out Marguerite's office at the Salk.

"Marguerite came from an era in which science was different," she concludes, packing the notebooks away. "She was not the kind of person who was out there ringing her own bell, but people who interacted with her knew how bright she was and how many good ideas she had.

"I'm still excited about science after all of these years and I don't know if that rubbed off on me from her, or if it was already there," Haggblom says. "But to this day, I perform tissue culture operations in a little plexiglass box the way Marguerite taught me."