A fifth-grader's science project changed the course of Tom Haines's life.
As a teacher at Fieldston School in Riverdale in the 1950s, he’d help his elementary school students conduct experiments, making radios from crystals and mating canaries. One day, one of them came to him with an idea for a science project: She wanted to prove that flies carried germs.
“I thought that was trivial,” Haines says. “All I needed was a fly and some garbage and a petri dish. And let the fly walk on the garbage and walk on the petri dish and let the fly leave a trail of bacteria.”
I’m a science teacher and I’m looking for a fly.
So Haines went looking for a fly. The problem was, it was February. And there were no flies to be found, not even when he checked biological supply houses. Then he remembered that in his youth, he'd taken a trip to a nearby research establishment where there’d been a room full of flies. He dialed its number.
“I’m a science teacher and I’m looking for a fly,” he announced.
“What stage do you want it in?” came the unfazed response.
There’s nothing like a successful experiment for starting a career.
When Haines went to collect his fly (in the pupa stage, in case you are interested) at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, he was so taken by their work that he wrangled a summer job there. Even though he only had his bachelor’s degree, they accepted him because, as a teacher, he was already technically paid for the summer and therefore came cheap.
He spent his summer injecting cockroaches with radioactive sulfate isotopes. And that, believe it or not, was how Tom Haines fell in love with science.
“That’s what hooked me,” he says. “There’s nothing like a successful experiment for starting a career.”
At Boyce Thompson, he had the opportunity to learn from biochemist Dr. Richard Block, whose work on amino acids and chromatography Haines admired. “He trained me, he and the staff in that lab, as to how you conduct science—what you look for, what your controls are, how you conduct experiments in science."
Of course, some of the skills Haines used in the lab had been honed in a different place entirely.
Haines had been just three years old when he was taken from his mother and placed in an orphanage. He has a vague recollection of standing outside the orphanage’s main building at sunset, with a view of the Hudson River and the Palisades, holding someone’s hand, but he’s not sure if that’s from the day he arrived at the Graham School in Hastings, New York, or if it’s an errant memory from another time.
When he was a little older, he took on jobs around the school, running the hot water heater and the furnace for enough money to go into Yonkers and see movies on the weekends. After school, he was assigned to different apprenticeships for periods of about six months, assisting carpenters, plumbers, and electricians with their work.
“I never had fear of electricity once I understood it,” Haines says. “For the laboratory, how could you get along without knowing plumbing and electrical stuff?"
Not that he spent all his time there so productively. Over the course of the eleven years Haines spent at the Graham School, he admits he “got into quite a few fights” and ran away three times.
“I don’t think I had a reason for it,” he says. “It was just a couple of us and we decided we were going to run away. And then of course we were always brought back by the police.” Until legislation later forbid it, he was punished with lashes across his hand from a willow switch.
Life is to live. You got to go do it. You don’t want to live your history.
Though Haines visited his mother several times over the years, and even sent her money when he could, he never found out why he had been taken from her, and he never tried to. “If I learned it, what would I do with it?” he says. “Life is to live. You got to go do it. You don’t want to live your history.”
When he was fourteen years old, he left Graham School and moved in with an older married couple who lived nearby so he could attend Hastings High School and work in their two acres of formal gardens. His hosts, who were successful artists, were ardently anti-communist.
“Boy did I learn how important Joe McCarthy was for saving America,” Haines says.
But despite taking on their beliefs, he still had a tumultuous relationship with the couple. The wife was constantly threatening to throw him out, shouting at him to leave over slight or imagined offenses. One day she even reported to the Graham School that he was unbearably untidy. But, coincidentally, just before a representative from the school came to inspect Haines’s room, he had cleaned it, unknowingly foiling her plans.
On the day he graduated from high school, he stayed out all night with his friends celebrating, as was the tradition with Hastings High students, and when he returned the next morning around 8 a.m., his hostess ordered him to get out.
This would be the last time she kicked him out, Haines decided. He packed up his things and went to New York City, where he lived on the streets for days before he found employment.
After he began working full-time and found an apartment, he started attending night school at City College, studying engineering and later science education. But when he calculated that it would take him seven to nine years to graduate at that rate, he quit his job, gave up his apartment, withdrew his hundred and twenty-five dollars from the bank, and went to City College to sign up to be a full-time student.
I'm a full-time student, and I have no place to live.
He walked into the Student Life office and said, “I’m a full-time student and I have no place to live.” They handed him a box of three-by-five cards—ads from families willing to take in students in exchange for services such as babysitting. His interest was piqued when he found a family advertising that they had a piano the babysitter could use.
“I answered that ad even though I knew nothing about the piano. I’d never played the piano in my life,” Haines says. Two days later he moved in with the Gorney family and began babysitting for their children, Karen and Daniel.
One evening, Haines was sitting with Mr. Gorney on a love seat watching the Army-McCarthy hearings on television while Mrs. Gorney prepared dinner in the next room.
“What do you think of this guy?” Mr. Gorney asked Haines.
“Oh, he’s saving America,” Haines said, echoing the beliefs he’d been taught as a teenager.
Gorney didn’t reply. Haines found out why the next morning, when he read the papers. Gorney, who worked in entertainment, had appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and had been blacklisted by Senator McCarthy.
“For the next few weeks, we had some pretty heavy-duty arguments because I really did believe that Joe McCarthy was saving America,” Haines says. In retrospect, he can’t believe the family didn’t throw him out. Especially since, as he learned later on, the Gorneys' young son had been bullied at school because of his father's blacklisting and the pro-McCarthy principal had just said, “Boys will be boys. You’ll have to take your kid somewhere else.”
But over the course of Haines's stay with them, he began to change his mind about McCarthy, after getting to know the family and their friends.
“They clearly were not un-American in any sense of the word. They were loyal Americans just like everybody else,” Haines says.
In 1962, Haines's life was changed again, this time more tragically. Richard Block, his mentor at the lab, took a trip to South America with his wife on behalf of National Institutes of Health (NIH) to inspect laboratories. On their return, the plane crashed in the Andes and they were both killed. It was the first time the couple had ever flown together in a plane.
“It was a jolt,” Haines says.
Even more of a jolt: Haines had to take over Block’s grant from the NIH to study the synthesis of amino acids in ochromonas danica, a protozoan algae, despite the fact that he wasn’t even in a PhD program.
“I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have any training to run an NIH grant.”
But Haines continued as Richard had taught him to—feeding the organism radioactive sulfate and following the synthesis of the amino acids and doing chromatography on the product.
“The bulk product ran in all the wrong places on our chromatograms. And there was a lot of it. There was so much of it we didn’t know what to do. So I decided to chase it,” he says. “Ironically”—and here Haines chuckles in delight—“it turned out to be a lipid. And this lipid was really weird.”
Soon, Haines began publishing his findings, including Block’s name on the research. And, after showing his research to a lipid chemist at Rutgers, Haines took his place there among the biochemistry PhD students.
After he passed his exams at Rutgers, he had to wait a year to do his thesis defense, even though his thesis was already published. In the meantime, he got a job teaching in the chemistry department at City College, where he asked permission to submit a grant application to NIH.
“Nobody seriously expected me to get that grant. They had sort of said, ‘Yeah, yeah, you can apply for a grant if you want. That’s perfectly all right. It won’t hurt,’” Haines says. After all, he still didn’t have his PhD and he wasn’t even a real professor.
But, well, he did get it.
“I was extremely lucky because Sputnik had just gone up and everybody was excited about funding science,” he says.
It was the first grant in the chemistry department at City College—and it included “things that were big instruments, especially in the chemistry department,” such as an incubator and an autoclave. City College made him an assistant professor right away, even without a postdoc.
In his new position, Haines was asked to serve as an advisor for premed students. “I knew nothing about medicine, and I hardly knew what premed meant,” he admits.
One day a student came in asking him for some advice. He was worried his grades were too low to get into medical school and he wanted to know what he could do to increase his odds. Based on advice he’d heard from other premed advisors, Haines recommended volunteering at a hospital or doing some academic research in someone’s lab. When the kid left his office, Haines said to himself, This kid should not be a doctor. What the hell am I doing?
“Gradually I began to understand that medical schools were depending on undergrad programs to screen students,” Haines says. “I thought that was horrible. I was too naïve to realize how entrenched it was. It sounded to me pretty stupid. You had to go through a whole academic four years before you even found out whether or not you were going to be a doctor. It just seemed so wasteful and crazy.”
Dealing with premeds is impossible because there’s only one thing they want to know: What was their exam grade?
The competitive atmosphere that the looming specter of med school created was ruining the educational experience. Students were sabotaging each other’s microscopes. If he suggested extra reading in class and informed the students that there were copies of the books on hand at the library, the next day he’d hear that the chapters he’d recommended had been torn out of all the books.
“Dealing with premeds is impossible because there’s only one thing they want to know: What was their exam grade?” Haines said. “After that, they don’t give a damn about anything.”
Haines preferred to foster a more nurturing atmosphere. He’d hold a vote in every class, asking students if they would agree to not ask each other about their grades. He threw parties for his students several times a year at his home.
We rolled up the rugs and we danced.
“We rolled up the rugs and we danced,” he says. Haines would show off the disco moves he learned from his former babysitting charge, Karen Gorney, who grew up to be an accomplished actor and singer, later starring alongside John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.
He found the solution to the medical school problem when he attended a conference at Columbia University. Several universities were discussing the idea of medical programs that accepted students directly from high school—they’d receive their undergraduate degrees and then transfer into the medical school more directly. Johns Hopkins University had been developing a BS-MD program that Haines particularly admired, though it failed due to university politics. In fact these programs were often ending before they even began because medical schools were reluctant to lose any of their resources or authority to undergraduate programs.
But City College didn’t have a medical school, which gave it a significant advantage in this situation, Haines realized. He recruited several medical schools to work with City College and incorporate students from its program. By working with multiple medical schools, City could retain control; in return these medical schools would have access to high-quality students from populations underrepresented in the medical field. At the time, City College was often referred to as “the Harvard of the Poor,” since it offered an affordable education while also boasting many Nobel Laureates and distinguished scientists such as Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, as graduates. A BS-MD program would be able to attract even more of these students with added affordability and the guarantee of a medical education.
After a few dead ends and failed attempts, City College raised two and a half million dollars to launch the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education, named for the wife of an alumnus who was the primary donor, in 1973. Today, Sophie Davis provides med students to six different medical schools, including New York University and Dartmouth; this year, 53 percent were from populations underrepresented in the medical profession.
Haines is now on the board of directors for the Graham School. He’s still active at City College, where he spent forty-three years as head of the biochemistry department, and he’s a visiting professor at Rockefeller University. It’s clear now that each of the experiences and obstacles he encountered as he grew up shaped him and gave him skills—from plumbing to independent thinking to disco dancing—that helped him succeed in science, whether he was conducting experiments, starting a new medical program, or creating a welcoming atmosphere for his students.
“I’ve had a really lucky life,” he says.
He’s in the process now of planning reunion parties for his former students. Just like they did decades ago, they’ll roll up the rugs in Haines’s living room, and he will disco dance again.
Not too long ago, he attended his friends’ Fourth of July party in Marblehead. Some guests arrived with a fourteen-year-old boy who’d recently lost both of his parents in a car accident. Everyone was fussing over him, and Haines could see that he was uncomfortable.
“I just watched that kid and the kid wanted to hide,” he says. So Haines took him out to the dock, where they sat and looked out over the water.
“I understand you’re a lucky kid,” Haines said.
The boy looked at him like he was crazy before asking, “Why do you say that?”
“You have something I also once had. I didn’t have any parents.”
“So that makes you lucky?”
“Yeah. You can do something that almost no other kid can do. You can pick your parents. No other kid can do that,” Haines explained. “If you like certain people you can hang out with them, and you can learn from them. It’s up to you what you want to do now. The world is wide open in a way. But you have to take advantage of it. And do something.”