Hiawatha's Biochemical Congress

 Hugh Sinclair, Magdalen College, Oxford

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I saw this poem, written in the style of Longfellow's 'Song of Hiawatha', in the April 1962 catalogue of Calbiochem, the California Corporation for Biochemical Research, Los Angeles. Biochemists might like to see how many allusions they can spot - and remember that it was written when the Cold War was at its height. You can find out more about Hugh Sinclair and his work here.


Should you ask me, why this Congress?
Whence these legion biochemists?
With the odours of the solvents,
With the dew and damp of entrails,
Of particulated livers,
With the curling smoke of Bunsens,
With their frequent repetitions,
With their wild reverberations,
As of thunder in the mountains?
I should answer, I should tell you
(Even if you do not ask me),
From the rat-house and the benches,
From the great labs of Wisconsin,
From the rich labs of Bethesda,
From the poor abodes of Oxford,
From the institutes of Cambridge
(Cambridge Mass. and Cambridge England),
From a host of other labs where
Biochemistry is practised.
If still further you should ask me
Why these biochemists gather?
I should answer your enquiries
(Even if you have not made them)
Straightway in such words as follows.


Every third year, in the summer,
Biochemists meet together
To discuss in many sections
Progress in their diverse subject;
As the termites in the summer
Swarm and crawl interminably,
Or the maggots on the dung heap
Multiply and are nuisance,
Or migrating birds in Autumn
Meet and chatter in the treetops,
Thus these biochemists gather
To discuss their diverse subject.


So they came in boats and ferries,
Came by air and came by roadway
In old cars of all descriptions,
Bicycled and hitch-hiked thither –
From the Rockies came in Boeings,
Central Europeans hitch-hiked.
Hiawatha, Minnehaha,
All their little sons and daughters,
And technician Wishi-Washi
Came by air with many dollars
(U.S.P.H.S. grants gave them),
And arrived at Moscow airport,
Came to Oily, Moscow airport.
There he met a lot of Russians,
Shoulders square and jaws like lanterns,
Who were called ‘Reception Party’.
Very friendly were the Russians,
Wreathed in smiles of friendly greeting
Like a Cheshire cat in season,
Grinning broadly, smiling slyly
Gripped his hand in vice-like greeting
Breaking all his metacarpals,
Slapped his back in boist’rous greeting
Causing much expectoration,
Hugged him comradely in greeting
And induced Valsalva’s Syndrome;
As the big brown bear will greet you,
Ursus Major (Linn.) will greet you
With a hug of fierce constriction;
As Laocoon was greeted
With his siblings by a serpent,
Pytho Pytho (Linn.), the serpent,
So the Russians, very friendly,
Greeted thus our Hiawatha
And technician Wishi-Washi.
Mere mechanics of this greeting
Were not thought sufficient symptoms
Of the friendliness they offered;
So a band as well paraded,
Played Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto,
Played it fast and very loudly,
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Andante,
Even faster and more loudly,
People’s Artist Ashkenazy
Hit the keyboard very deftly,
While the orchestra around him
Beat the drums and crashed the cymbals,
Blew the trombones, fifes and trumpets
Like the thunder in the mountains,
Deafening our Hiawatha
And technician Wishi-Washi;
Minnehaha, though, enjoyed it
For she came from the Dacotahs,
Liked the thunder in the mountains;
Danced and sang with skirts a-rippling,
Minnehaha, Laughing Water;
And the Russians, very joyful,
Danced as well, and crashed their cymbals.


To his lodgings in a hostel
Came a lusty Russian woman
Seeking out our Hiawatha
Who had written years aforetime
‘Biochemical Synopsis’
In a monographic series
(Academic Press and Maxwell).
In this book he wrote of subjects
Very tortuous and tricky:
How electrons are transported
From the substrate to the aether,
Whisked from succinate by enzymes
To a flavoprotein complex,
Then perhaps by Slater’s factor,
DPN (or so he called it; but to make the subject simpler
Malcolm Dixon has renamed it),
Then coenzyme Q transports them –
So at least in various papers
David Green et al propounded
(Though again to help the student
Morton called it something different
But its name is unimportant
Since it will not fit my metre);
At this stage the tired electrons
Needing some rejuvenation
Couple to phosphorylation,
ATP is generated
Muscle fibres are contracted
(Or relaxed; it still seems doubtful
Which state is the active process,
So confused the subject is since
A.V.Hill used thermocouples
To elucidate the nature
Of a muscle’s heat production);
Lehninger has postulated
Many steps for firmly coupling
O2 to phosphorylation,
As a couple in the springtime –
(Here the censor broke my couplet) –
Or a couple on an engine
Hitches on the train behind it;
Racker, though, has washed the enzymes,
Dried them, and then crystallised them,
And he finds a different picture:
As the mud upon the prairies
Makes obscure the tracks of bison,
So the use of dirty enzymes
Can mislead good biochemists.
This small textbook he had written –
‘Biochemical Synopsis’
In a monographic series –
Russians had translated without
Copyright or his permission.
So this lusty Russian woman
Gave him roubles as reward for
This infringement of his writing;
Very rich was Hiawatha,
Very rich with useless roubles.


Hiawatha gave a paper
(Section 59, on enzymes,
Hofmann-Ostenhof the chairman);
Told how he had taken pieces
From the spleen of the opossum
(Which, since it lives upside down, has
Dextro, and not laevo, compounds),
Ground them up with sand and water
(With the help of Wishi-Washi),
Ultrasonic oscillations
Made the preparation finer,
Poured them through a porcelain filter,
Then extracted them with ether
And the residue discarded,
Next absorbed them on some charcoal
And eluted them with acid,
Dialysed with normal saline
(Ringer, Krebs and Wishi-Washi),
Threw them down with conc sulphuric,
Centrifuged them in a Sharples,
Washed them with dilute baryta
And a little borate buffer,
Estimated protein by the
Folin-Ciocalteau method,
Separated into fractions
On a fractionating column,
Checked the purity of fractions
At 280 millimicrons,
Gas-chromatographed them after
They were taken up in solvents
Which were then evaporated
In a crucible of silver;
After adding dilute soda
To pH of 9.7,
Hiawatha scratched the sides but
Found no crystals would develop,
So in desperation added
Wishi-Washi’s cigarette ash.
Now the crystals grew in splendour –
Rhomboid plates with star-shaped knobs on –
Purple crystals of an enzyme
Which he forthwith sent to Oxford
To be seen by Mrs Hodgkin
Who shone X-rays through its body
Getting pictures like a thumb-print
Or the contours of the Rockies,
And its structure thus determined.
Having crystallised this enzyme
From the spleen of the opossum
(With the help of Wishi-Washi),
So the crystals now he christened
To complete this classic paper:
Called the enzyme Hiawathase,
Called it Apohiawathase;
Wishi-Wash-co-ase its partner,
And the total enzyme system
‘Honour be to Hiawatha’
Cried the Congress at this paper
(Section 59, on enzymes),
‘He has crystallised an enzyme;
Mighty is our Hiawatha,
Mighty as a biochemist
Since he’s crystallised an enzyme’.
Harington, Sir Rudolph Peters,
F.G.Young and Krebs reported
‘Honour be to Hiawatha,
FRS be he elected,
He has crystallised an enzyme.’
David Green and Malcolm Dixon,
Engelhardt and Lubjimova,
Shadrach, Meshach, Abed-Nego,
Sumner, Northrop, Pizzicato,
Severo Ochoa added
‘Honour be to Hiawatha,
Nobel Laureate we’ll make him,
He has crystallised an enzyme.’
Academic T.Lysenko
Astronauts like Major Titov,
Major-Generals in profusion,
Peoples’ Artists, Peoples’ Workers,
Heroes of the Soviet Union,
Commissars and Comrade Khrushchev
Cried together at the Congress
‘Honour be to Hiawatha
And a little honour shown to
Wishi-Washi his technician –
They have crystallised an enzyme.’


After this superb reception
Of his paper to the Congress
Hiawatha needed liquor,
Needed caviar and vodka,
As a parched and dried-up cactus
Needs some fluid in its phloem,
So he sought a restaurant with
Wishi-Washi his technician;
Saw a likely-looking portal
With the usual queue of people,
Waited there with hours of waiting
And was very tired on reaching
His eventual destination.
But the queue was not for vodka
But the salt-mines in Siberia.
So our Hiawatha travelled
On a long and distant journey
Part on foot and part by ox-cart
Herded with a lot of men and
Wishi-Washi his technician
With some snow upon their jackboots
Till at last they reached Siberia.
Thus departed Hiawatha,
Hiawatha biochemist,
In the glory of the sunset
In the purple mists of evening
With his purple enzyme crystals,
Wishi-Washi his technician,
And the cheers of all the Congress,
To the salt-mines of Siberia,
And lived hap’ly ever after –
There’s no queuing in Siberia.