For more than 50 years, Victor McElheny has been writing about science. He's covered everything from Sputnik to the human genome, written for magazines and newspapers in the US and Europe, served as the inaugural director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's Banbury Center, founded the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT, and written a biography of James Watson. He was present at Cold Spring Harbor lab when, on June 3, 1986, the first large, public argument about the genome was held. There is, perhaps, no one more qualified than he to document the history behind the drafting of the human genome, and his new book — Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project — proves it.
McElheny's history of what he calls "a huge leap forward" in science is comprehensive, attention-grabbing, and thorough. Anyone familiar with the story of the Human Genome Project has heard of the rivalry between Craig Venter and Francis Collins, of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on completing the project, and now — 10 years after the draft human genome was completed — of the work researchers continue to do to translate their time, effort, and money into concrete advances for the good of human health. But McElheny makes it clear what it took to make that draft. The book's awareness of the people involved in the project, the many different personalities, the hard — sometimes endlessly painstaking — work, the small fights, and small triumphs are really what make it worth reading. "My book is dealing with the improbable fact that the project got started and that it kept going," he says. While the accomplishment itself certainly takes center stage, the strength of McElheny's chronicle lies in reminding us of what it took to get there, and reminding us that there's still so much to be seen.
McElheny says he chose to wait until now to write this book because he wanted to write a complete history of the project. "There have been a number of books written [about the genome] which have been fragments of a history," he says. "But things kind of shut down around the year 2000, once the draft was announced." In reality, he adds, while the announcement of the draft was "a nice photo op," the genomics "explosion" has really been happening in the last decade. "The question running through my mind has been, 'What good is this? What is it doing to and for people?'" he says. "The impact is beginning to be felt, but there's so much steam behind this. The scale of the activity is increasing, and the level of talent that the enterprise draws is also increasing."