Elizabeth Blackburn and the Story of Telomeres

Deciphering the Ends of DNA



Catherine Brady


The MIT Press, first MIT Press paperback edition, 2009


ISBN: 978-0-262-51245-9


Understanding that Elizabeth Blackburn was the person who discovered how the ends of chromosomes are stabilized (which earned her a Nobel Prize in 2009, the year this paperback edition was published) should be enough to convince you to read this book. In this biography, you will learn who Blackburn is and how she became a world renowned scientist.

The biographer summarizes what you will find in this account in the last paragraph of the book. I quote: “Blackburn’s personal story is interwoven with so many others: how molecular biology evolved over the last thirty-five years; how a new scientific field is born; how basic science research contributes to clinical studies on human health by a circuitous route; and how women have made advances in a male-dominated profession despite enormous obstacles. Her services on the President’s Council on Bioethics illuminates the dangerous terrain in which science intersects with politics and offers a timely reminder of how scientific integrity contributes to our society’s welfare. Blackburn’s story also counters the popular myth of the solitary scientific genius and the common notion that only ruthless competition can produce the finest research. She is no lone hero but a highly collegial and collaborative citizen of an interactive community, someone whose idealism does not contradict her competitive spirit.”

However, I do feel obliged to add a footnote to the preceding summary. This book will discuss Blackburn’s scientific discoveries in some detail, but the author found that rare limbo where the analysis is neither detailed enough to satisfy scientists, nor basic enough to be comprehensible to non-scientists. The author makes too many assumptions of the readers’ prior knowledge of molecular biology, so I feel that younger students might get lost in the science. Conversely, the descriptions are not detailed enough for seasoned scientists to completely follow without looking at the original references, which to be fair, are duly cited throughout the book.

Overall, I think the book has much to offer the reader despite its shortcomings, but advise students not to get caught up in the technical details. If you find yourself getting stuck, just shrug your shoulders and move on, as these details are not essential to understand Blackburn’s trajectory as a scientific giant.