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Waclaw Szybalski Collection

Identifier: WTS

Scope and Contents

The Waclaw Szybalski Collection contains material related to Dr. Szybalski's research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory from 1951-1955, as well as material from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's predecessor institutions'such as the 1920 edition Cold Spring Harbor Song Book and printed material from the Long Island Biological Association (LIBA). Material also includes hadnwritten and typed course notes from teaching "Selected Methods in Bacterial Genetics (1951-1952 and 1957); student cards and course notes from "Microbial Genetics Course 1955-1957; and Laboratory outlins for a course on "Selected Methods in Bacterial Genetics 1957. There is one manuscript titled "Origin of Drug Resistance in Microorganisms" by Vernon Bryson and Waclaw Szybalski circa 1953. There are reprints dating from 1947-1957, many by Dr. Szybalski and Dr. Bryson, as well as others. There are a few clippings, as well as honorary degrees and certificates and a shovel from the CSHL Carnegie Library groundbreaking.


  • Creation: 1920 - 2014

Biographical / Historical

Dr. Waclaw Tadeusz Szybalski was born September 9, 1921 and raised in what was then city of Lwów, Poland. He was the son of Michalina Rakowska Szybalski, a crystallographer, and Stefan Szybalski, an electrical engineer.

Waclaw received a BS in chemical engineering in 1944 at the Institutes of Technology in Lwów, Poland. He went on to receive a MS in chemical engineering in 1945 in Gliwice, Poland; and a doctorate in 1949 in Gdansk, Poland. He was able to accomplish all of this during the turmoil of World War II. The Szybalski family managed to survive both the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Lwów partly due to their involvement in the production of typhus vaccine at the Typhus Institute of Professor Weigl, where many of the intelligentsia of Lwów were sheltered during WWII. Waclaw’s knowledge of how to distill homemade vodka, the currency of choice during the war, also helped immensely, as did his extensive resourcefulness.

After short periods as a Visiting Professor at the Institute of Technology in Copenhagen, Denmark, Szybalski was able to escape the Stalinist regime in Poland and immigrate to the United States in 1950. He immediately found work as a scientist at Wyeth Inc., in West Chester, PA, and then joined Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory from 1951-1955 as a staff member. Szybalski worked alongside Nobel Prize winners James Watson, Barbara McClintock, Alfred Hershey, Max Delbrück, and Salvador Luria. At CSHL in 1952, Szybalski met his future wife, Dr. Elizabeth Hunter, a fellow scientist. They were married in 1955.

Szybalski then worked at the Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, as an Associate Member from 1955-1960. In 1960, Szybalski joined the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an Associate Professor of Oncology, and rose to the rank of full Professor in 1963. For over 25 years Waclaw and his wife Elizabeth worked together, carrying out ground-breaking research in genetics and molecular biology. Waclaw's research covered many areas of biology, including bacterial genetics, mechanisms of drug resistance and radiosensitization, mutagenesis, function of antibiotics, multi-drug therapy, molecular biology of bacteriophages, particularly phage lambda, genetic engineering, gene therapy, and DNA biochemistry/sequencing.

Waclaw made major contributions to the fields of molecular biology and genetics. His prolific research output in the United States began with genetic studies of drug resistance that led to the use of multi-drug therapy that is now widely used to treat bacterial and viral infections and cancer. His studies of the antibiotic-producing soil microorganism, Streptomyces, yielded information that was useful in the commercial production of streptomycin, an effective therapeutic for treating tuberculosis. Waclaw and Elizabeth were the first researchers to perform gene transfer into mammalian cells (using HAT medium) and to introduce the ground-breaking idea that treatment for human genetic diseases could be made possible through gene therapy. His work laid the foundations for several Nobel Prizes won by others.

He also founded and served as the Editor-in-Chief of the journal "Gene" from 1976-1996, and served on the editorial boards of numerous other journals. He was the author or co-author of over 300 publications in the field of microbiology, genetics, and molecular biology. His last publication appeared in the scientific journal GENE - of which he was the founder and editor-in-chief for 20 years - in 2013. Waclaw also strongly and publicaly defended the rights of free inquiry in science, including “the principle of the freedom to teach and research,” by which alone the truth can be found.

Waclaw retired in 2003, and held the rank of Emeritus Professor of Oncology and of Genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was a Foreign Member of the Polish Academy of Sciences. In 2011, he received the highest honor awarded in Poland, becoming a Knight of the Order of Polonia Restituta, First Class, presented by President Komorowski of Poland, one of five Polish Presidents that he met in his life. He also received five honorary doctorates from leading universities in Poland.

Waclaw contributed to the advancement of molecular genetics both in the United States and Poland, and remained a strong patriot of both countries to the end of his life. He was also a philanthropist, both in the United States and Poland, contributing to many projects benefiting both science and students, and to an annex of the Carnegie Library at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which was named for him. A biography of Waclaw’s life was published by the Gdansk University Press in Poland, and then translated and re-published in English in 2020, and a documentary film, “The Essence of Life” by Anna Ferens, an award-winning Polish filmmaker, screenwriter and journalist, was created about him in 2014. Waclaw passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of 99 on December 16, 2020. Waclaw was preceded in death by his wife, Elizabeth. He is survived by his three children: Jolanta Fabicka, Barbara Hunter-Sandor and Stefan Hunter.


6 Linear Feet

3 Boxes

Language of Materials



Stephanie Satalino
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives Repository

Library & Archives
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
One Bungtown Rd
Cold Spring Harbor NY 11724 USA