Salk Institute for Biological Studies


Suzanne  Bourgeois

Suzanne Bourgeois

Professor Emeritus and Founding Director
Regulatory Biology Laboratory



Suzanne Bourgeois did pioneering work on the regulation of gene expression using at first the bacterial lactose (lac) operon as a model system. In the 1960s, when the nature of the regulatory molecule was still unknown, she demonstrated that the lac "repressor" was a protein. She used that system to carry out the first characterization of the interaction of a regulatory protein with DNA. She later studied the regulation of genes in animal cells in tissue culture by hormones and cancer genes. She eventually identified compounds that could be useful to reverse the multidrug resistance in cancer.

"Today we take the Salk Institute and its success for granted. It is edifying–and makes a good story– to explore what it took to get us here and to be what we are: the idea, the people, the circumstances, the location, the building."

After a scientific career researching bacterial cell regulation and gene expression in cancer cells, Bourgeois has turned her attention to the history of science—specifically, the early history of the Salk Institute. Because she was a witness to the Institute's history since before its inception, Bourgeois is uniquely qualified to bring that story alive. She also had the privilege, while working in New York and Paris in the 1950s and 1960s, of knowing many of the pioneers of molecular biology, several of whom helped establish the Salk Institute. She therefore has written a book about the origin and early history of the Salk Institute. Entitled "Genesis of the Salk Institute: The Epic of its Founders" her book is a well-documented personal account based on extensive research encompassing archival material, interviews and her own diaries. This never-told story puts the creation of the Salk Institute in the context of global history and offers rare testimonies of major events of World War II. It also integrates the creation of the Salk Institute with the postwar revolution in biology and the development of the San Diego area.

Jonas Salk's original concept for an institute evolved under many influences, including those of the physicists Robert Oppenheimer and Leo Szilard. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Salk contacted the scientists who were to become the Institute's founders: Melvin Cohn, Francis Crick, Renato Dulbecco, Edwin Lennox and Jacques Monod. At the same time a mathematician and humanist, Jacob Bronowski, joined the group, and another mathematician and remarkable man became the first chairman of the Board of Trustees: Warren Weaver, who coined the term "molecular biology." The success of the polio vaccine earned Jonas Salk the respect and friendship of Basil O'Connor, the first president of the March of Dimes, whose support ultimately made the Salk Institute a reality.

The Institute's founders belonged to the generation of World War II and the Manhattan Project and, afterward, the Cold War. The original faculty and several of the early presidents and trustees had actively participated in those events, which shaped what they wanted to do, how they operated and how they saw the future. Most importantly, that background distinguished them as members of an impressive network of outstanding achievers. That legacy of accomplishment remains the foundation of the Salk Institute to this day.

Awards and Honors

Selected Publications


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