Filed by Stu Borman
Robert Cahn, a frail biochemist in his 70s who walks slowly with the aid of a cane, was fired from a tenure-track faculty position in 1972 and lived in a commune most of the time after that, but he hasn’t lost his love for scientific research.
|Cahn in the 1950s (left, courtesy of Robert Cahn) and last week in Philadelphia (right, photo by Stu Borman/C&EN).|
He flew to Philadelphia from Washington state last week–his first time on the East Coast in about 22 years–to attend the ACS National Meeting. His aim was to speak with other scientists who might help support experiments he would like to do on the mechanism of action of naturally occurring herbs and dietary supplements with healing effects.
Cahn believes the active ingredients in some of these natural products are DNA-intercalating agents and that such agents could represent an important source of new therapeutics. In the 1980s, while working as a research associate in a California lab, he helped develop genetically engineered bacteria that can detect DNA intercalating agents.
Cahn earned a bachelor’s degree with high honors in biology and chemistry at Swarthmore College in the late 1950s and a Ph.D. in developmental biochemistry at Brandeis University in the early ’60s. His doctoral thesis–on characterizing the five different isozymes of lactic dehydrogenase–was considered an important finding at the time and “was published as the lead article in Science before I even got my Ph.D.,” Cahn says.
For seven years in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Cahn was an assistant professor and then an associate professor with tenure in the zoology department of a major West Coast university, where he ran a biochemical embryology group. In part because of his strong liberal views–he advised students who wanted to resist the Vietnam War draft and permitted his research group to investigate the health effects of hashish–he ran into strong opposition from department administrators. He had also developed bipolar disorder and suffered from profound episodes of depression that impaired his job performance. As a result of these factors, the university terminated his employment in 1972, giving him severance of a year’s salary plus $6,000.
By a year or so later, Cahn had become unable to support himself. For example, he notes that he applied for a job as a laboratory dishwasher but was turned down when the employer found out he was a Ph.D. biochemist. In desperation, he joined the Love Israel family, a Washington-state-based spiritual community, where he converted from his native Judaism to Christianity and changed his name legally to Abishai Israel. For 30 years, he was a gardener, tutor, and herbal medical adviser for the community.
Cahn is still a member of the group, but he now lives alone. He currently supports himself on Social Security and disability benefits and by selling his own herbal perfume.
In the mid-1980s, Cahn worked briefly as a research associate at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where he helped develop a genetically engineered bacterial strain that can be used to detect DNA-intercalating agents–the research he is trying to promote at this week’s ACS meeting.
“Herbs don’t have these exquisite [chemical] structures to do nothing,” he says. If DNA intercalation “is a simple mechanism of healing, that would be nice to know.”
Why after all these years and so many obstacles is he still trying to pursue his scientific research? “If your curiosity is gone, you’re dead,” Cahn says. “You die of boredom because you’re not onto anything. I’m onto something.”