Matthew Meselson Collection
Scope and Content
The Dr. Matthew Meselson Collection is composed of three record groups: Professional Materials, Chemical and Biological Warfare Materials, and Laboratory Notebooks.
Materials in the first record group were accrued by Dr. Matthew Meselson during his doctorate work at the California Institute of Technology from 1953-1957 under Linus Pauling, his tenure as an Assistant Professor at Caltech, his work with Franklin Stahl in 1955-1957 demonstrating self-replication of DNA, and his tenure as a Professor at Harvard University beginning in 1960. The collection consists of correspondence, laboratory files, course notebooks, photographs, reprints, X-ray films, and graphs. The date range is from 1948-2022.
Materials in the second record group consist mainly of correspondence and reports concerning Dr. Meselson’s efforts for the cessation of biological and chemical warfare in Vietnam; research concerning this type of warfare—such as rapid detection methods and investigations into the ‘yellow rain’ allegations—and its effects on humans; and political work and activism, including work with the Pugwash Conferences and the ratification of the Geneva Protocol by the United States, eventually leading to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997. The date range is from 1944-2020.
The Biological and Chemical Warfare series consists of general correspondence and reports. Frequent correspondents include Martin Kaplan (World Health Organization), Julian Perry Robinson (Stockholm Institute Peace Research Institute), and Henry A. Kissinger. Along with fellow concerned scientists and citizens, Meselson advocated for research to be done on the short- and long-term effects of the usage of biological and chemical weapons on civilian populations and environments. He also advocated to high-ranking United States government and military officials for the cessation of the “rainbow herbicides” and defoliants in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. The U.S. military sprayed nearly 20,000,000 U.S. gallons of chemicals during Operation Ranch Hand, which are still affecting the population today. Among other weapons opponents, Meselson attended Pugwash Conferences, founded by Joseph Rotblat and Bertrand Russell.
Series II: Herbicide contains not only Meselson correspondence but also materials from Arthur Westing and Eleanor Mathews, Meselson’s assistant. In August 1970, Meselson, Westing, and Robert E. Cook traveled to Vietnam for a study commissioned by the American Association for the Advancement of Science of the effects of military use of herbicides in Vietnam. While there, Mathews handled Meselson’s office at Harvard University.
Materials in the Yellow Rain series are related to Meselson’s investigation of the 1981 claims of U.S. Secretary of State, Alexander Haig Jr., that the Soviet Union had supplied a chemical weapon to the Viet Cong and Pathet Lao. The alleged weapon took the form of sticky yellow liquid, which killed plants and sickened people who came into contact with it. Meselson, after testing samples and traveling with a team to Laos in 1983, concluded the substance was fecal matter of the giant Asian honeybee.
Series IV: Sverdlovsk Correspondence contains materials accrued during Meselson’s 1986 and 1992 investigations of the April 2, 1979, anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk, Soviet Union (now Yekaterinburg, Russia). Meselson’s findings initially agreed with the Soviet assessment that the outbreak was caused by a contaminated meat processing plant. In 1991, this assessment was undermined by an investigation by Wall Street Journal Moscow Bureau Chief, Peter Gumbel, and a 1992 admission by President Boris Yeltsin that Soviet military development was the cause. Meselson led a team, which included his wife, Jeanne Guillemin, to the region in June 1992 and eventually determined all 68 victims affected by the outbreak had been downwind at the time of the release of the spores via aerosol.
The final series of the second record group contains scientific materials related to research and presentations concerning rotifers and introns.
The third record group consists primarily of notebooks used by either Meselson or his students. The first series in this record group holds notebooks Meselson himself used between 1945 and 1992. It also contains the syllabus for a class Meselson taught in 2015. Notebooks used by Meselson's students are found in the second series.
The third series contains documents relating to Meselson's participation in the Environmental Mutagen Society. Now known as the Environmental Mutagenesis and Genomics Society, this organization worked to prevent genome damaging practices on a national and international level.
The fourth and final series contains photographs of Meselson and others.
The collection is organized into three record groups:
Record Group I: Professional Materials, 1948-2010
- Correspondence, 1951-2019
- Laboratory Files, 1953-1996
- Writings, 1987-2013
- Subject Files, 1948-2022
- Awards & Honors, 1975-2009
Record Group II: Biological Chemical Warfare Materials, 1944-2020
- Biological and Chemical Warfare Correspondence, 1962-2016
- Herbicide Correspondence, 1944-2010
- Yellow Rain Correspondence, 1970-2012
- Sverdlovsk Correspondence, 1980-2004
- Rotifers and Introns, 1962-2020
Record Group III: Laboratory Notebooks, 1940-2015
- Meselson Notebooks and Syllabus, 1945-2015
- Student Notebooks, 2006-2012
- Environmental Mutagen Society, 1940-2004
- Creation: 1940 - 2020
- Meselson, Matthew, 1930- (Person)
Language of Materials
Bulk English; some materials in French, Spanish, German, and Russian
Some restrictions apply to this collection. Materials containing recent email addresses, addresses, or other personal information are restricted and not available for use. Access is given only by appointment, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Archival materials must remain in the archival reading area. Item duplication is to be done by archivists. Fees are applied to copies made. Digital photography is permitted by users.
Matthew Stanley Meselson, born May 24, 1930 in Denver, Colorado, is a geneticist and molecular biologist currently at Harvard University. He received the Ph.B. degree in liberal arts from the University of Chicago in 1951 and his Ph.D. in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1957. Working under his doctoral advisor Linus Pauling and using X-ray crystallography, his 1957 thesis was titled I. Equilibrium sedimentation of macromolecules in density gradients with application to the study of deoxyribonucleic acid. II. The crystal structure of N,N-dimethyl malonamide. He was a Research Fellow and Assistant Professor of Physical Chemistry at Caltech until joining the Harvard faculty in 1960.
While at Caltech, he invented the equilibrium density-gradient centrifugation method in order to identify and analyze the densities of giant molecules. Along with his colleague Franklin Stahl, this new ultracentrifugal method was then used to test hypotheses of how DNA replications and eventually demonstrated the semi-conservative replication of DNA molecules in 1958. Upon replication, the two complementary strands of the bacterial DNA separate and each single parent strand directs the synthesis of a new daughter strand. The results of this experiment verified the suggestion first put forward by James Watson and Francis Crick five years earlier, lending important early support for the Watson-Crick model of the DNA molecule. Working with Sydney Brenner and François Jacob, the density gradient method was also used to demonstrate the existence of messenger RNA.
At Harvard, Meselson, along with his students, demonstrated the enzymatic basis of host-controlled restriction of DNA, predicted and then discovered methyl-directed repair of mismatched DNA, and detected homologuous DNA exchanges within bdelloid rotifer populations. Other research includes sequencing Drosophila with a focus on heat-shock proteins.
Dr. Meselson also has an interest in arms control, specifically regarding biological and chemical weapons and in anti-CBW protection. He has acted as a consultant to various government agencies regarding these subjects. In August and September 1970, Meselson led a team in the Republic of Vietnam in a pilot study of the ecological and health effects of military use of herbicides. In 1983, along with Thomas Seeley, Dr. Meselson went to Thailand in order to conduct a field study of “yellow rain,” which was initially feared to be a toxic weapon but shown by Meselson to be non-toxic feces dropped by swarms of the giant Asian honeybee Apis dorsata. In 2002 and 2003, he led a team to Sverdlovsk (now Yeketerinburg), Russia, to investigate outbreaks of human and animal anthrax in 1979.
He is the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences at Harvard University and Co-director of the Harvard Sussex Program on Chemical and Biological Weapons.
32 Boxes (30 0.4 ABs, 1 RC, 1 slide box) : 10 linear feet
The Dr. Matthew Meselson Collection (1948-2022) is composed of materials accrued by Dr. Matthew Meselson during his doctorate work at the California Institute of Technology from 1953-1957 under Linus Pauling, his tenure as an Assistant Professor at Caltech, his work with Franklin Stahl in 1955-1957 demonstrating self-replication of DNA, and his tenure as a Professor at Harvard University beginning in 1960. It also includes decades of materials, mainly correspondence, concerning Meselson’s self-described “hobby:” biological and chemical weapons research and political activism for control and disarmament. The collection consists of correspondence, laboratory files, course notebooks, photographs, reprints, X-ray films, and graphs. Many materials are related to X-ray crystallography, DNA replication, and Drosophila sequencing and heat shock proteins.
The materials were donated by Dr. Meselson in three accessions, #2021-11, #2021-17, and #2023-04.
The first accession arrived in seven archival boxes and one wooden slide box containing films related to the Meselson-Stahl experiment of 1957. The papers and folders arrived in good condition. Items containing Social Security numbers were photocopied, redacted, and the original materials removed from the collection. The collection has been arranged according to the order in which it arrived, with consolidation of ‘Old Letters’ files into appropriate files as needed. Folders were titled according to original titles. General Correspondence is filed alphabetically; Institutional Correspondence is filed chronologically according to the original order.
The second accession arrived in eight non-standard boxes. The materials arrived in good condition and were arranged chronologically by subject. A vast majority of the materials in the second record group are correspondence and reports written or published in the specified year. An unlabeled box contained materials relating to rotifers and introns was included in the second record group and has not been integrated into the other scientific files. Original order and folder titles were maintained.
The third accession arrived in two large bins. The majority of the accession was made up of notebooks, which were organized by author and date. There were also papers relating to Meselson's involvement in the Environmental Mutagen Society and some photographs, which were sorted into their own series.
This collection was donated by Matthew Meselson in May 2021 from his personal collection. Accession number MSM-2021-11. It was processed in June 2021. The second accession was donated by Matthew Meselson in December 2021. Accession number MSM-2021-17. It was processed in April 2022.
- Brenner, Sydney (Person)
- Cairns, John, 1923- (Person)
- Crick, Francis, 1916-2004 (Person)
- Doty, Paul M., 1920-2011 (Person)
- Pauling, Linus, 1901-1994 (Person)
- Radman, Miroslav (Person)
- Stahl, Franklin W. (Person)
- Watson, James D., 1928- (Person)
- Salk Institute for Biological Studies (Organization)
- Agent Orange
- Base Sequencing
- Biological weapons
- Centrifugation, Density gradient
- Chemical warfare -- Research -- United States -- History -- 20th century
- DNA Replication
- Drosophila Genetics
- Molecular biology
- Operation Ranch Hand, 1962-1971
- Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- Chemical warfare
- X-ray crystallography
- Em Longan
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description