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The CSHL archive is one of the world’s most significant repositories of primary material documenting the history of biotechnology. While reflecting CSHL’s own important place in the molecular revolution in biology, the collection is truly global in scope as a result of accessions from individuals and organizations who worked beyond Long Island. Important phases in the history of biotechnology are all well represented in the CSHL collection, including the origins of recombinant DNA research, practical and ethical debates over the safety of genetic modification of organisms, and legal proceedings over intellectual property rights to biological materials and methods.

photo of ribbon cutting ceremony
Broad Hollow Bioscience Park Ribbon Cutting, 2000

Many of the personal collections deal extensively with biotechnology, including the extremely large Sydney Brenner and James D. Watson collections. Brenner was enthusiastic about biotechnology, as evidenced by many reports and talk-transcripts in which he assessed the state of the field (see, for example, his 1983 talk, “Overview of Biotechnology in Industry—Keynote Address, Seminar on Biotechnology—Singapore” SB/3/23). As director of CSHL and the early Human Genome Project, Watson was notably ambivalent about patenting of genes (see, for example, the letter from Watson to Herman Daly and Robert Goodland, 1992 JDW/2/2/2025/5), but he recognized that “we [i.e., CSHL] have no choice but to upgrade ourselves for the biotechnology world of the next century” (Watson to John A. Luke, 18 October 1989, Watson Collection, 3/7/3, box 3).

photo of Walter Gilbert at a Biogen Meeting
Walter Gilbert at a Biogen Meeting, 1981

The centrality of intellectual-property controversies to the history of biotechnology is illuminated in an extraordinary collection of documents in the Brenner collection related to the lawsuit filed by Genentech, Inc. against Wellcome PLC in the United Kingdom for patent infringement of a drug known as “tPA.” Brenner was hired by Genentech to serve as an expert consultant and witness during the trial. The files include correspondence from Genentench, Inc. regarding hiring Brenner, legal filings (many with notes by Brenner), transcripts of the arguments, the decision, and supporting documents, and even a daily journal kept by Brenner during the trial (SB/4/3). Additional correspondence related to the trial can be found in the Institutional Correspondence subseries (SB/1/2).

photo of Charles Weissmann
Charles Weissmann on the occasion of the interferon approval, Biogen, 1986

Biotechnology and academic-commercial partnerships are discussed in many of the interviews in the Oral History collection (see, for example, interviews with Michael Ashburner, Hans Clevers, Ari Patrinos, and John Sulston), and the topic was also the inspiration for one of the CSHL History of Science meetings, 2008’s “Biotechnology: Past, Present, and Future.”

The archive also contains material that predates the term “biotechnology,” but deals with related themes of commercialization of research products. These can be found in records of CSHL’s precursor institutions held in the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (1890-1941) collection and the Long Island Biological Association (1900-1962) collection.

photo of 2013 paper by Robert Wargas
Biotechnology at CSHL, 2013 paper by Robert Wargas

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