The Genius You’ve Never Heard Of: A Cautionary Tale

If you don’t know about Leroy E. Hood, you should. Lee — as he’s known — is one of those quirks of history: a scientific pioneer whose genius has impacted millions of lives, but who’s virtually unheard of outside his field. As a doctor and scientist, I have lived nearly four decades in a world heavily influenced by Lee’s remarkable contributions to biology and medicine. So, I was fascinated to read Hood: Trailblazer of the Genomics Era, by the science journalist Luke Timmerman, and get to know more about him.

First things first. I loved Hood. The book is pitched just right: straightforward, honest and plainspoken. I could not put it down, and so enjoyed learning about Lee’s life story. Despite a few significant caveats (I’ll mention those later), I’d recommend that any budding scientist read Hood to be encouraged by what is possible from truly humble beginnings. Timmerman perfectly captures the essence of why Lee’s journey from troubled Montana kid to high flying Caltech scientist is so inspiring. Particularly notable was the descriptions of how his ferocious drive led to the invention and development of, among many other things, the automated DNA sequencer that spearheaded the Human Genome Project.

I love how the book explores the necessary conditions for such innovation, the importance of philanthropy to progress, and how Lee made biology accessible to everyone. Lee — in efforts led by his wife Valerie Logan — was an early champion of science education, especially for the underserved, and had a huge influence as a teacher and visionary. For many years, Lee truly was a “Pied Piper”, inspiring others to dream big and make an impact. And he deserves credit for setting in motion the personalized medicine revolution that today allows doctors to draw up bespoke treatment plans for individual patients.

All that said, the deeper I read, the more Timmerman’s portrayal reveals several troubling downsides of Lee’s operating style. What is it about geniuses and their flaws? From sports to science, history is filled with exceptional individuals whose brilliance dazzles us, but whose behavior disappoints us.

The recounting of Lee’s departure from University of Washington and the unraveling of his relationships with both UW professor Maynard Olson and philanthropist Bill Gates reads very much as “powerful scientist bucks bureaucracy”. But it was actually more suggestive to me of Lee’s inability to collaborate effectively. I was even more disappointed that Timmerman was not more critical about Lee’s failure to develop and mentor the talent working in his lab. The book describes an absent laboratory leader who is reluctant to share credit for collaborative projects. I am a huge fan of the “team sport” aspects of groundbreaking science, but that is not the approach described in Hood .

So, while I do recommend this book, early career scientists should consider Hood a cautionary tale. I found it especially revealing that the same characteristics — his self-confidence and single-minded determination — that led to Lee’s greatest successes, also led to burned bridges with many colleagues and regrets about inadequate time spent with family. The book’s touching description of Valerie returning to her maiden name so she could carve out a life of her own in Seattle helps illustrate the consequences of a life too singularly focused on scientific progress and fundraising.

For me, the most inspirational role models manage to balance both life and career.

Sue Desmond-Hellmann

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