Category Archives: Printed Books

First Monday Library Chat: The David Walker Lupton African American Cookbook Collection

Welcome to the September 2018 edition of the First Monday Library Chat. This month we travel to Tuscaloosa and speak with Kate Matheny, Reference Services & Outreach Coordinator for Special Collections at University of Alabama Libraries.

Ruth Jackson's Soulfood Cookbook, 1978. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Ruth Jackson’s Soulfood Cookbook, 1978. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries


The Lupton Collection is a key holding at the University of Alabama Libraries. Could you give us an overview of the collection?

The Lupton Collection documents African American foodways writing, a spectrum that ranges from professionally published cookbooks and food memoirs to recipe collections self-published by community groups or families. The earliest volume is The House Servant’s Directory, published in 1827, and the latest are from the twenty-first century. It’s a collection of over 450 books—which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it very much is. Consider the factors that might prevent such books from being written, especially in the nineteenth century: low literacy rates, a historically improvisational method taught person-to-person, or the pragmatic need for someone working as a cook to safeguard his or her livelihood. That’s to say nothing of barriers to publishing cookbooks by black authors and the reality that some early works may have simply been lost over time.

Mother Africa's Table, 1999. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Mother Africa’s Table, 1999. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

The collection contains some cookbooks authored by whites, including corporate collections featuring figures like Aunt Jemima and nostalgic works by Southerners purporting to share the recipes of family servants. Including these in the collection may seem strange, but for a time these were the only works attempting to set down African American food culture, all while typifying stereotypical portrayals that black cookbook authors were working to combat. But the bulk of the collection is from the mid to late twentieth century, written by African Americans or on their behalf. It’s hard to sum up all the themes that run through the collection, but in many ways they reflect the currents of modern black history. For example, you can see the consequences of the Great Migration as well as the paradigm shift of the Black Pride movement. Two of the biggest recent trends are adjusting traditional soul food to combat health problems like heart disease and diabetes and highlighting the connection to African foodways and diaspora cuisines like Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian.

For those of us interested in the history of archives, can you tell us a bit about the Collection founder David Lupton?

Freda DeKnight, The Ebony Cookbook, 1962. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Freda DeKnight, The Ebony Cookbook, 1962. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

David Lupton was an academic librarian who became a diligent bibliographer of early African American cookbooks, even after his retirement. According to his wife, Dorothy, his interest in the subject sprang from his purchase of a black-authored cookbook at a flea market and subsequent realization that such items were rare and hard to find. He became passionate about finding a way to document—as well as collect and preserve—these artifacts of African American culture.

I think knowing the rationale behind the collection is actually important in understanding how to use it. The Lupton collection is historical and academic, which is a different thing entirely from a personal collection accumulated by a cook. For example, we recently catalogued a large donation of cookbooks belonging to Viola Pearson Ragland, an African American woman from north Alabama. Some of those items overlap with Lupton, but not as many as one might think. Since they are books she owned and used, the selection tends to be more eclectic, and it’s possible she didn’t need or perhaps want very many works on African American cooking. An academic collection will naturally be more focused, as it is curated for posterity and for study, but it is not as reflective of actual use.

Can you highlight one or two of your favourite items?

These may not be the most “important,” but they are certainly favorites, and they’re pretty representative of what’s compelling about the collection.

Cooking with Coolio, 2009. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Cooking with Coolio, 2009. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

When I teach, I often bring out Cookin’ with Coolio (2009). People don’t expect a rapper to have anything to say about cooking, but that’s precisely why I like it. Coolio did collaborate with a chef, but the aim of the cookbook and the tone are all his. He talks about growing up poor in inner city Los Angeles and learning to improvise with the ingredients he could find, including things as simple as canned tuna and white bread. It leads to pragmatic recipes with funny names, like, “Your Ribs Is Too Short to Box with God” and “Really? Corn Salad?” The book looks like a joke—on the cover, he calls himself the “Ghetto Gourmet”—but it’s a real cookbook with its own unique personal and cultural perspective. As a teaching tool, it asks us to evaluate kneejerk assumptions and provides a good entry point for a discussion about food and class.

Introduction from Ruth Jackson's Soulfood Cookbook, 1978. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Introduction from Ruth Jackson’s Soulfood Cookbook, 1978. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

I also like Ruth Jackson’s Soulfood Cookbook (1978). It’s a self-published, spiral-bound volume put together on Jackson’s behalf by someone who clearly knows and loves her. Though the text is written in the third person, it asserts that “Ruth Jackson wrote this book.” After all, the recipes and all the intangible things that helped shape them — her small Georgia hometown, her church, her family — are hers. Interspersed are sketches and candid photographs, and there’s an essay in the back on the history of the local black community. Recipes are fairly simple, but it’s clear she has put her own spin on things. Two unusual recipes that stand out are “Cornmeal Gingerbread” and “Devil Chicken.”

This month, we are featuring a Teaching Series here at the Recipes Project. Can you tell us about some of the ways that you’ve used the Lupton Collection in the classroom?

Interior from Cooking with Coolio, 2009. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Interior image from Cooking with Coolio, 2009. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

What impresses me about teaching with cookbooks in general is how versatile they are. I didn’t set out to become the “cookbook person” at my archive; I just ended up with frequent instruction requests for the Lupton Collection — from half a dozen departments, including English, Anthropology, and History. There are so many things to analyze in a cookbook. The rhetoric of the text and the iconography of the visuals tell some of the story. The organization reveals a lot about the particular cuisine and the cook’s approach to it. The format and level of detail in the directions changes over time and indicates what kind of kitchen facilities the average cook had and who was doing the cooking. Even the ingredients are revealing, giving insight into the foods available at the time and the socioeconomic class of the audience.

In my experience, cookbooks also level the playing field for student discussion. Everyone eats, and most people have done some cooking at some point, so cookbooks feel very easy to approach. Deceptively so, I think. Students don’t get intimidated, so it’s easier to engage them in analysis and discussion. The instructor can tie them to complex ideas they’ve been discussing in class, and I can help them develop critical thinking and information literacy skills. To address the Lupton Collection specifically, it’s always interesting for students to see how much of traditional Southern cuisine has its roots in African American cuisine. It opens up an interesting dialogue.

Can you offer any tips to help users locate Lupton resources via your catalog, online, or finding aids?

We don’t have a formal finding aid for them as such, but this webpage has a comprehensive alphabetical list. You can also find the cookbooks in a search of our catalogue. If you’re interested Lupton’s bibliography, which also includes items that are not in the collection, it can be found in an appendix to collaborator Doris Witt’s Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of U.S. Identity (Oxford University Press, 1999). However, it is nearly 20 years old, so it doesn’t include one important early work that hadn’t yet been discovered: Malinda Russell‘s Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen (Paw Paw, Mich., 1866).

Tales From the Archives: A Recipe for Disaster: How Not to Distill Turpentine

In September 2018, The Recipes Project will be six years old. There’s been a lot of blogging on this platform, and we are so grateful to all our wonderful contributors. But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, once a month, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, I have chosen a piece written by Tillamann Taape. In this post, first published in July 2013, Tillmann writes vividly about alchemical disasters. Heat, unsurprisingly, comes into play. Enjoy!


By Tillmann Taape

When sifting through early modern alchemical recipes, I am often struck by their inherent dangers which would make modern-day health and safety officers pull their hair out. Renaissance practitioners were remarkably unfazed by temperatures high enough to melt glass and metal, and they frequently recommended heating volatile and flammable liquid in sealed glass vessels which, by their own admission, had a tendency to crack if not handled with the utmost care. Surely these exploits must have gone wrong a lot of the time, resulting in burnt fingers or a faceful of boiling alcohol?

If we look at the stereotype of the alchemist in contemporary satirical literature, it seems that accidents came with the job. In his Ship of Fools (1494), German humanist and satirist Sebastian Brant echoes themes from medieval poetry in his depiction of the alchemist: a greedy and reckless fool whose dangerous and fruitless exploits leave him scarred, financially ruined and even blind. [1] As a source of historical information, satirical genres should of course be taken with a generous pinch of salt. It is significant to note, though, that early modern people saw alchemy as a potentially dangerous thing to do, even in times long before anything like today’s health and safety standards.

More direct evidence of alchemical disasters is, unfortunately, fairly rare. I would of course be delighted to be persuaded otherwise by readers of this blog, but to me it seems that while adepts of alchemy frequently wrote down instructions which sound like they might well blow up, they were frustratingly silent on whether this actually happened. I was quite thrilled, therefore, when I finally stumbled upon a first-hand account of an alchemical disaster: exploding stills, knocked-out practitioners and all. In his 700-page tome entitled Liber de arte distillandi de compositis or Large book of distillation, first published in 1512, my favourite surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here and here) includes the following cautionary tale.

Brunschwig was distilling turpentine to separate the watery fraction from the valuable oil, and when nearly all of the water had come out, he was interrupted.

 I was called away to a patient, so the oil went into the water, and when I came back, a layer of oil was sitting on top of the water. I didn’t have the sense to simply decant off the oil, so I poured the lot into a new flask and thought I’d just extract the water by distillation. But I was called away again, and in the meantime the water evaporated from the oil, and some of it condensed on the side of the flask and dripped back into the oil, which rose inside the flask with a great tumult, and fumes erupted from the flask, blowing off the alembic. [2]

 A lot to handle: picture of a still from Brunschwig’s Large book of distillation. © Wellcome Images

A lot to handle: picture of a still from Brunschwig’s Large book of distillation.
© Wellcome Images

Things got worse when Brunschwig came back late at night and went to investigate the accident, telling his servant to bring along a light:

When the light arrived, the fumes touched it, and fire burst forth all around, and in the blink of an eye went out again, nevertheless burning off mine and my servant’s hair, clothes and eyebrows. We fell to the ground and did not know where we were, but before long we got up again and fetched a closed lantern so the same thing would not happen again, and threw ashes in the furnace to smother the fire. [2]

And this, dear readers of the Large book of distillation, is how you do NOT distill turpentine! Once the initial excitement about this truly adventurous tale had worn off, I realised that, to the historian, there was more to this anecdote than merely the satisfying confirmation that some procedures which look so precarious on paper did indeed go up in fire and smoke. In his description of this extraordinary incident, Brunschwig also reveals a number of interesting details about his everyday life and work. We get a glimpse of what it meant for an early modern practitioner to have multiple vocations. Juggling his alchemical activities with his duties as an apothecary and surgeon, it seems that Brunschwig could be called away to the aid of a patient at a moment’s notice, even at night. We also learn that he had at least one servant, and we can surmise that he did his distillations in an enclosed workshop, since a buildup of explosive fumes would be unlikely in the open air. Perhaps most importantly of all, this anecdote provides strong evidence that Brunschwig was actively performing many of the procedures he describes in his works, rather than just copying and compiling them for publication.

Anecdotes like these, then, are more than just an entertaining read and a well-earned reward for ploughing through hundreds of pages of Brunschwig’s Alsatian dialect with its erratic spelling. Descriptions of extraordinary events also grant us a glimpse into the reality of practicing alchemy, and into practitioners’ everyday life.

[1] On the stereotypes and changing ‘personae’ of early modern alchemists, see Tara Nummedal,  Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007, Ch. 2.

[2] Brunschwig, Hieronymus. Liber de arte distillandi de compositis […]. Strasbourg: Grüninger, 1512.


Dr. Chase

By Mandy Aftel

A peddlar, from the Italian Frontispiece of Alessio Piemontese.

In early America, settlers on an expanding frontier had to rely on their own skills and know-how. At the same time, itinerant peddlers made this self-reliance possible, by providing both materials that couldn’t be grown or made and practical information and instruction on cooking, medicine, and more. Even in Colonial times, aromatics peddler was a recognized profession, as distinct from, say, indigo peddler. “Usually a free-lance,” writes Richardson Wright in Hawkers and Walkers in Early America, “he managed to scrape together ten or twenty dollars, which was enough capital to set himself up in business, that is, fill his tin trunk with peppermint, bergamot, and wintergreen extracts and bitters.”[i] In that era, every settler was a distiller, and the bitters were in great demand to mix with homemade spirits. Aromatics were also used in food and all kinds of home remedies.

Peddling expanded with the frontier, and the peddler became a familiar figure there, his one or two small oblong tin trunks mounted on his back with a leather strap There were the general peddlers who hawked an assortment of useful “Yankee notions”—buttons, sewing thread, spoons, small hardware items, children’s books, and perfume. Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s father, left Yale to become a Yankee notions peddler before developing into a major figure of the transcendentalist movement.

Over time, a peculiarly American subculture grew up around this nomadic subculture that included not only peddlers but also medicine shows, carny folk, fortune tellers, dancing bears, minstrels, and all manner of “hawkers and walkers” who live on in our memory of what Greil Marcus has called the “Old Weird America.”

Credit: Collection Mandy Aftel.

One pivotal figure in that world was “Doctor” A. W. Chase. Born in 1817, he started out as a peddler of foodstuffs and medicines in Ohio and Michigan. For a while he traveled with the circus, collecting recipes—among them “Backwoods Preserves”, “Good Samaritan Liniment” and “Magnetic Ointment,” which Chase insisted was “really magnetic” though it contained only lard, raisins, and tobacco— from the same people he peddled to: housewives, settlers`, doctors, saloon keepers. A recipe for Toad Ointment, a remedy for strain and injury that he got from “an Old Physician who thought more of it than of any other prescription in his possession,” called for cooking live toads along with other ingredients. “Some persons might think it hard on toads,” wrote Chase, “but you couldn’t kill them quicker in any other way.”[ii]

Eventually, Chase settled in Ann Arbor, where he printed a pamphlet of the recipes he had collected, giving it the title Dr. Chase’s Recipes; or, Information for Everybody. This was a distinctly American Book of Secrets, and like the one published by his predecessor Alessio Piedmontese, it became a huge success, sold by peddlers much like himself to people who wanted a practical, all-purpose book to help them with all manner of daily problems. Over the next dozen years Chase continued to add to it and to reprint it, until, by its thirty-eighth edition, it contained more than six hundred recipes. It was translated into German, Dutch, and Norwegian, and sold all over the English-speaking world. Although he sold his rights to the book and the printing house he had established, he ultimately lost his fortune and was a pauper when he died in 1885. But his book lived on, selling about four million copies by 1915. According to William Eamon, “There were years when Dr. Chase’s Recipes sold second only to the Bible.”[iii]

Credit: Collection Mandy Aftel.

Some of Chase’s recipes were for things everyone needed— glue, ink, vinegar, ketchup—while others were specific to the needs of certain professions, from bakers to gunsmiths. He organized it not by chapter but by “departments”: “Saloon,” “What and How to Eat,” “How to Live Long,” “What to do Until the Doctor Comes,” “Sheep, Swine and Poultry,” and “Care of the Skin,” to name but a few. His disquisition on vinegar captures the flavor of can-do exhortation that made his book such an enduring hit:

Merchants and Grocers who retail vinegar should always have it made under their own eye, if possible, from the fact that so many unprincipled men enter into its manufacture, as it affords such a large profit. Remember this fact –that vinegar must have air as well as warmth, and especially is it necessary if you desire to make it in a short space of time. And if at any time it seems to be “Dying” as is usually called, add molasses, sugar, alcohol or cider—– whichever article you are making from, or prefer—– for vinegar is an industrious fellow; he will either work or die, and when he begins to die you may know has worked up all the material in his shop, and wants more.[iv]

Although experienced physicians regarded Chase as a charlatan, the medical remedies were the most popular aspect of his book. He recommends “soot coffee”– yes, made from “soot scraped from a chimney (that from stove pipes does not do),” steeped in water and mixed with sugar and cream, as a restorative for those suffering from ague, typhoid fever, jaundice, dyspepsia, and more. “Many persons will stick up their noses at these ‘Old Grandmother prescriptions,’ but I tell many ‘upstart Physicians’ that our grandmothers are carrying more information out of the world by their deaths than will ever be possessed by this class of ‘sniffers,’ and I really thank God, so do thousands of others, that He has enabled me, in this work, to reclaim such an amount of it for the benefit of the world.”[v]

[i] Richardson Wright, Hawkers and Walkers in Early America: Strolling Peddlers, Preachers, Lawyers, Doctors, Players, and Others from the Beginning to the Civil War (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1927) 56-57.

[ii] William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 359.

[iii] Ibid, 359.

[iv] A. W. Chase, Dr. Chase’s Recipes or Information for Everybody, revised ed. (Chicago: Thompson & Thomas, 1903), 37.

[v] Ibid, 79.

Mandy Aftel is an artisan perfumer who has published on scent and flavour. She also has a small museum, The Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. (Details here.) The above excerpt is from her award-winning book, Fragrant:The Secret Life of Scent (Penguin, 2014). You can purchase her books here.

Recipes for Recombining DNA. A History of Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual

This month, we’re excited to collaborate with History of Knowledge to celebrate the upcoming conference, Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge. The five-day event takes place at Princeton in June and features a “blogged conference” to complement traditional panel presentations. For the next few Thursdays, the Recipes Project will cross-post selections from the conference (with RP readers noting  the extended length, in keeping with HoK posts). These features are  just a taste of more than thirty works produced for the conference, and readers are invited to read the full selection here. Enjoy!


Angela N.H. Creager

Since Warren Weaver coined the term “molecular biology” in the late 1930s, technological innovation has driven the life sciences, from the analytical ultracentrifuge to high-throughput DNA sequencing. Within this long history, the invention of recombinant DNA techniques in the early 1970s proved to be especially pivotal. The ability to manipulate DNA consolidated the high-profile focus on molecular genetics, a trend underway since Watson and Crick’s double-helical model in 1953. But the ramifications of this technology extended far beyond investigating heredity itself. Biologists doing research on a wide variety of molecules, including enzymes, hormones, muscle proteins, RNAs, as well as chromosomal DNA, could harness genetic engineering to copy the gene that encoded their molecule of interest, from whatever organism they worked on, and put that copy in a bacterial cell, from which it might be expressed, purified, and characterized. Many life scientists who wanted to use recombinant DNA techniques were not trained in molecular biology. They sought technical know-how on their own in order to bring their labs into the vanguard of gene cloners. Manuals became a key part of this dissemination of expertise.

What did it mean to clone a gene? Simply put, cloning is copying, and a gene is usually copied onto a vector that can replicate in a cell, so that the copied gene can be propagated and studied. In seeking to make copies of genes and move them around from organism to organism, biologists were inspired by bacteria, whose ability to exchange genetic material had been recognized in 1946 by Joshua Lederberg and Edward Tatum. It turned out that there were numerous genetic units that enabled gene exchange in bacteria, including lysogenic viruses and fertility factors. In 1952 Lederberg christened the entities “plasmids.”

By the 1960s, researchers were using these naturally-occurring gene shuttles in microbes to identify, map, and characterize bacterial genes.[1] Unsurprisingly, many biologists were more interested in tracking genes found in humans and other “higher organisms” (eukaryotes—plants, animals, and fungi—as opposed to the one-celled prokaryotes, mostly bacteria). The discovery of bacterial restriction enzymes, which sever DNA strands at specific base-pair combinations, inspired molecular biologists to attempt to use these as microscopic scissors. In principle, if a researcher could identify and locate a particular eukaryotic gene, she could use a restriction enzyme to “cut” it out of chromosomal DNA and insert it into a circular bacterial plasmid (Figure 1). Cloning eukaryotic genes was an immensely difficult task, and several early attempts faltered. Other efforts did not go forward due to the potential public health hazards of placing genes from widely-studied tumor viruses into E. coli, a bacterium that usually inhabits the gut of humans. No one knew whether exposure to bacteria toting these tumor-associated genes could give people cancer.

Figure 1. Image and caption from Congress of the US, Office of Technology Assessment, Impacts of Applied Genetics: Micro-Organisms, Plants, Animals (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office), 5. Public Domain.

In 1973, a group of scientists at UCSF and Stanford, led by Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen, succeeded in placing a copy of a frog gene (one that encoded ribosomal RNA) into a bacterial plasmid. Not only was the inserted gene on its plasmid vector taken up and replicated by E. coli, but also the foreign DNA was expressed into the corresponding product RNA. Their 1974 publication became the much-cited proof that genes from a higher organism could be cloned and expressed in a bacterium.

Few scientists, however, had the specialized materials with which to achieve such a feat. Richard Roberts at Cold Spring Harbor discovered and purified many of the restriction enzymes essential for this work. He recalls that “Summer visitors would stop by with a tube of their favorite DNA in their pocket, just to see if we had an enzyme that would convert it into some useful fragments.” Unable to persuade his own institution to start manufacturing and selling restriction enzymes, Roberts helped the newly-founded New England Biolabs corner this market. The first company catalog was issued in 1975; their enzymes became indispensable to the early gene cloners. Biologists who worked on bacteria were able to rapidly exploit these newly commercialized enzymes and customized plasmids, so that the cloning of genes from microbes took off.

However, cloning of genes from higher organisms remained in the hands of the experts who could make the difficult techniques work. In 1977, Shirley Tilghman and other members of Philip Leder’s group cloned the first mammalian genes from mice.[2] In addition to academic researchers, biotech entrepreneurs were keenly interested in cloning eukaryotic genes. Simply obtaining genetic material from higher organisms in a form that could be searched for a specific gene was a formidable challenge. Tom Maniatis, part of the group that cloned the first human gene, created a human genomic “library” and shared it with other biologists.[3] But researchers also needed protocols and know-how. Courses (for practitioners, not only university students) became a popular way to meet this demand.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory had been offering summer courses on new laboratory techniques since the 1940s. One popular course, “Advanced Bacterial Genetics,” already offered researchers a chance to learn how to identify, map, and copy genes from prokaryotes. In 1980, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) began offering a postgraduate summer course called “Molecular Cloning of Eukaryotic Genes.” James Watson, director of CSHL, asked Maniatis to teach this course, and others joined the effort. Nancy Hopkins, who had taught a tumor virology course that had just ended, stayed on for the cloning course. Ed Fritsch, a postdoc in Maniatis’s lab, put together the laboratory materials, and Helen Donis-Keller and Catherine O’Connell served as course assistants.[4]

The coursebook was made up of “consensus protocols” defining the field at the time (many of which were already circulating informally).[5] Upon advertising the postgraduate training course, “Molecular Cloning of Eukaryotic Genes,” more than 300 applied to take it. Only sixteen students could enroll. Watson immediately saw the opportunity to make cloning know-how available to a wider base of users through publication. Issuing an instructional guide from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory would further consolidate the institution’s reputation for being at the vanguard of molecular biology—and there was already a tradition there of publishing course manuals as books.

Figure 2. Cover of Tom Maniatis, Ed Fritsch, and Joe Sambrook, Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual (Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1982). Author photo.

Watson wanted Maniatis on the team of authors, as his reputation in cloning genes was already formidable. But he had recently moved to Caltech, where he was busy chairing an NIH study section and running his own lab. He only agreed to prepare a manual based on the course if he had significant help.[6] Watson persuaded Joe Sambrook, a long-time tumor virologist at the lab, to join the effort. Although Sambrook had not taught the summer course, he did have extensive relevant knowledge, and he would do a lion’s share of the manual-writing.[7] Fritsch, who was about to leave for a tenure-track faculty position at Michigan State University, remained involved with the project having helped teach the course twice.[8] In the end, the collaboration was productive, and the first edition was published in 1982 (Figure 2). Maniatis handed off teaching of the “Molecular Cloning of Eukaryotic Genes” summer course at CSHL to others the same year as the manual came out.

The three authors explain in the Preface that because “the manual was originally written to serve as a guide to those who had little experience in molecular cloning, it contains much basic material.”[9] Indeed, the book was full of both recipes and tips. That said, part of its success, according to one early user, was that it communicated enough about the science behind the recipes that users were able to trouble-shoot the problems they ran into.[10] And part of the utility of the book was that, by virtue of its plastic-ring binding, it could be laid flat on a laboratory bench [11] (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Pages 92 and 93 of Maniatis, Fritsch, and Sambrook, Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual. One can see how the book is spiral bound so it lays flat when open. Author photo.


Just as Watson had suspected, Molecular Cloning met widespread demand. There were orders for more than 5000 copies before the publication date. Consequently, the press sold 5113 copies the first month of its appearance, in July 1982 (as compared with its original number for sales projected by the press: 210 copies). In August 988 copies were sold, in September 2487, in October 1863, and in November 768. That fall, Molecular Cloning was outselling every other book in the press’s line-up.[12] As a reviewer for the British Society for Developmental Biology put it, “no laboratory with any serious interest in molecular biology of development and their [sic] cloning should be without it.”[13] By late June 1983, more than 18,000 copies had been sold.[14] Plans for a second edition, initially scheduled for 1984, were already underway.[15] The second edition, which actually appeared in 1989, was received just as enthusiastically as the first. As a reviewer in Nature put it,

Few molecular biologists welcome publication of any of the many protocol books that promise to be the single source for their laboratory methods. For the most part, such laboratory methods fall far short of this goal. So why the excitement surrounding the long-awaited second edition of the classic guide, Molecular Cloning, which first appeared in 1982? The original version immediately filled the need for an anthology of laboratory procedures pertinent to the emerging field of recombinant DNA. With the 545-page spiral-bound paperback in hand, virtually any experimentalist could make a stab at cloning and have a reasonable expectation of success.[16]

Figure 4. Frederick M. Ausubel, Roger Brent, Robert E. Kingston, David D. Moore, J. G. Seidman, John A. Smith, and Kevin Struhl, eds., Current Protocols in Molecular Biology, vol. 1 (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1987). Author photo.

In short, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory publication became the canonical manual—or “Bible”—for gene cloners. Extending this common metaphor, one biochemist made reference to “those who daily workshop the Cold Spring Harbor idol.”[17] But the deity had rivals. Its strongest competitor was Current Protocols in Molecular Biology, introduced in 1987 by a group of researchers based at Massachusetts General Hospital.[18] Sarah Greene was the original publisher, but the series was soon bought by Wiley. Rather than being written by three authors, this manual was produced by an entire team of scientists, who contributed individual pieces on various techniques. In addition, Current Protocols had a very different way of dealing with the rapid growth (and obsolescence) of techniques—the book was designed to be expanded via subscription. Through a quarterly update service, subscribers received supplements to insert into the original loose-leaf binder, which was separated into sections by preprinted dividers (Figures 4 and 5). This meant that the Table of Contents also needed frequent updating. Five thick binders were published in the original series (Figure 6).

Figure 5. Ausubel et al., eds., Current Protocols in Molecular Biology, open so that dividers between the sections of the loose-leaf bound book are visible. Author photo.

The loose-leaf format proved unwieldy, and in 1989 Wiley published Short Protocols in Molecular Biology: A Compendium of Methods from Current Protocols in Molecular Biology. This single volume work was bound as a traditional text, with wide pages in a format that would prop open easily on the back of a lab bench. The challenge of updating was more easily accommodated by the growth of multimedia technologies in the 1990s. The 2001 edition came with a CD-ROM “Lab Book.” By the third edition (2001), Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual also had an associated website for its publication. Moving manuals online put knowledge at one’s fingertips in a new way, yet the demand for guides that can be plopped open on a lab bench has meant that print versions retain value, as evidenced by the publication of a fourth edition of Molecular Cloning in 2012. Most fields of life science today, including bioinformatics, cell biology, immunology, neuroscience, stem cell science, and toxicology, have their go-to manuals and protocol books, in print and online.

Figure 6. Three of the first five volumes, published in the late 1980s, of Ausubel et al., eds., Current Protocols in Molecular Biology, stacked on office table. Author photo.

These “cookbooks” occupy the shelves, benches, and hard-drives of most biology labs, important if unnoticed. Their ubiquity enriches our understanding of the scientific process. An obsession with innovation may blind us to the importance of procedure, repeatability, and tried-and-true methods. Manuals make discovery possible, by leading scientists through the routine steps of their experiments and (if the manual is good) helping them trouble-shoot when experiments fail. In a world of hyper-specialized research, guide books are bridges, carrying technical know-how between laboratories and enabling researchers to master the latest methods without going back to school.


[1] For an overview see William Hayes, The Genetics of Bacteria and their Viruses (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1965).

[2] S. M. Tilghman, D. C. Tiermeier, F. Polsky, M. H. Edgell, J. G. Seidman, A. Leder, L. W. Enquist, B. Norman, and P. Leder, “Cloning Specific Segments of the Mammalian Genome: Bacteriophage  Lambda Containing Mouse Globin and Surrounding Gene Sequences,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 74 (1977): 4406–4410; D. C. Tiermeier, S. M. Tilghman, and P. Leder, “Purification and Cloning of a Mouse Ribosomal Gene Fragment in Coliphage Lambda,” Gene 2 (1977): 173–191.

[3] Richard M. Lawn, Edward F. Fritsch, Richard C. Parker, Geoffrey Blake, and Tom Maniatis, “The Isolation and Characterization of Linked d- and b-Globin Genes from a Cloned Library of Human DNA,” Cell 15 (1978): 1157–1174.

[4] Interview with Tom Maniatis, Columbia University, New York, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016.

[5] Jonathan Karn, “Yet Another Maniatis?” Trends in Genetics 4/9 (Sept 1988): 268.

[6] He was chair of an NIH study section and running a big lab, which involved constantly writing grants, as well as teaching a full load at Caltech. Interview with Maniatis, op. cit.

[7] Joe Sambrook was a talented and combative British tumor virologist whom Maniatis met when doing his cloning work at CSHL in the 1970s. Involving him as an author of the molecular cloning manual enabled a certain redress at CSHL. A few years earlier Sambrook had contributed significantly to John Tooze’s Tumor Virology book, but this was not acknowledged by his being an author. Personal communication, Alex Gann, 26 May 2010.

[8] Interview with Maniatis, op. cit.

[9] Tom Maniatis, Ed Fritsch, and Joe Sambrook, Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual (Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1982), iii.

[10] Conversation with Michael S. Levine, fall 2016.

[11] Stephanie Radner, Yong Li, Mary Manglapus, and William J. Brunken, “Joy of Cloning: Updated Recipes,” Trends in Neuroscience 25/11 (Nov 2002): 594–595.

[12] Memorandum from Susan Gensel to Jim Watson, 10 Dec 1982, re: sales at the American Society for Cell Biology meeting, Watson papers, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives. At that meeting Molecular Cloning sold 83 copies, and all the other sales together, 22 titles in all, made up 102 copies.

[13] British Society for Developmental Biology Newsletter VII, October 1982, review of Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual, copy in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives.

[14] Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Annual Report 1982, 12.

[15] J. Sambrook, E. F. Fritsch, and T. Maniatis, Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual, 2nd ed. (Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1989). This edition was three volumes.

[16] Stuart Orkin, “By the Book,” Nature 343 (15 Feb 1990): 604–605, on 604.

[17] S. J. W. Busby, “Comprehensive Cloning,” Trends in Genetics 4/12 (Dec 1988): 352.

[18] The Harvard-affiliated editors were Frederick Ausabel, Robert Kingston, Jonathan Seidman, and Kevin Struhl.

Blog Series: Learning by the Book

Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #lbtb18. Tweet or email links to related discussions. Read more posts in this series, and check out the conference website.