When he was a corpsman in Vietnam, J. Craig Venter saw life vanish in an instant, blotted out by a rocket or a bullet or a booby trap. Now, a leading genomic scientist, founder of The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), he is in the pioneer in the effort to unlock the elemental mysteries of life.
Dr. Venter, whose non-conformist nature is legend, was living the life of a beach bum in southern California when the realities of war intruded. In 1967, he was sent to Vietnam. There, he was assigned to the emergency room at the naval hospital in Danang, treating thousands of his wounded and dying peers. It was an experience that left emotional scars.
“I learned firsthand how tenuous our hold on life can be,” he has said. “That experience inspired my interest in learning how the trillions of cells in our bodies work and interact to create and sustain life. . . I realized that the human spirit was at least as important as our physiology. We are clearly much much more than the sum totals of our genes, just as our society is greater than the sum total of each of us. Our physiology is based on the complex and seemingly infinite interactions among all of our genes and the environment, just as our civilization is based on the interactions among all of us.”
His experiences in Vietnam made for “a very rude awakening,” he said in an interview in The Lancet. “The immortality most young people feel vaporized before my eyes. I was appalled by the limitations of medicine and felt completely helpless.” Feeling lucky to have survived his year in Vietnam, “idleness was not an option any more” for Craig Venter. Deciding research had more possibilities than medicine, he earned his PhD from the University of California at San Diego.
Dr, Venter had been working for the National Institutes of Health on gene research. Unable to obtain government financing to expand this research, he left the NIH in 1992 to become president and director of TIGR, a nonprofit research center now based in Rockville, Maryland. TIGR published the first completed genome, Haemophilus influenzae, in 1995, and then sequenced the genomes of 11 more organisms.
On June 26, 2000, in an announcement at the White House, Dr. Venter “an historic point in the 100,000-year record of humanity… that for the first time our species can read the chemical letters of its genetic code.
The importance of Dr. Venter’s work and that of his colleagues and “competitors” cannot be understated. “The information we gain about the genetic basis of illness and wellness will be catalytic for the future of medicine,” he told The Lancet. Further, he noted in his announcement at the White House, “The complexities and wonder of how the inanimate chemicals that are our genetic code give rise to the imponderables of the human spirit should keep poets and philosophers inspired for millennia.”