A debut biography examines a biologist whose DNA sequencing work paved the way for the Human Genome Project.
Biotech journalist Timmerman met Leroy “Lee” Edward Hood as a Seattle Times reporter in 2001. Bill Gates had lured Hood to the University of Washington in 1991 with $12 million for a molecular biotechnology department, but in 1999 Hood resigned to found the Institute for Systems Biology. The book shrewdly opens with this turning point, then retreats to Hood’s birth in Montana in 1938 and proceeds chronologically. A football quarterback and Westinghouse Science Talent Search finalist, Hood looked to professors to provide the positive example his alcoholic father didn’t. Caltech hosted much of Hood’s career, from undergraduate years—when he was president of the freshman class—to two decades on staff. While at Caltech, he co-wrote a biochemistry textbook and headed a cancer research center. “Never prone to self-doubt,” Hood had broad but shallow knowledge, Timmerman notes, so relied on—and sometimes took credit for—colleagues’ expertise. However, he was dedicated to innovation, and his work on a DNA sequencing machine would prove as revolutionary to the genomics field as the printing press has been in Western culture. Such farsightedness accounts for him winning the 2002 Kyoto Prize and a 2013 National Medal of Science—limited consolation for missing out on a Nobel Prize in the 1980s. One chapter title sums Hood up perfectly: “A Visionary, Not a Manager.” Timmerman builds a painstaking picture of a determined researcher whose entrepreneurial spirit made up for what he lacked in genius and interpersonal skills. Although distant and dismissive of bureaucracy, Hood earned tenure at Caltech at age 35 and became a department chair at 41—but he was asked to step down in 1988. Alongside his professional difficulties, including some failed ventures (for example, a rice genome project with Monsanto), were complications in his personal life, particularly wife Valerie Logan’s Alzheimer’s disease. In this sympathetic and thorough biography, Timmerman’s admiration of a man who was still working 84-hour weeks well into his 70s comes through clearly. Yet the author never shies away from the contradictions of this forceful personality.
A fine tribute to a forerunner of today’s personalized medicine and wellness monitoring; Hood deserves to be a household name.