Which came first- the chicken or the egg? Which came first- William Firshein or Wesleyan? Oh, the questions… If you want to perturb any wavering MB&B major or test the emotional stability of an administrator you particularly dislike, mention the name Bill Firshein and you’ll get what you want. After spending more time at Wesleyan than any other professor, you’re allowed to say what you mean and mean what you say. But perhaps it is just Professor Firshein’s assured disposition and passion for science that has enabled him to become the well-known character he is.
Back in 1957, Daniel Ayres Professor of MB&B William Firshein began teaching at Wesleyan after completing his Ph.D. at Rutgers University on the virulence (the ability to be viral, pretty much the ability to make you sick as a dog) of certain pathogens, specifically the ones that give you pneumonia. Before his long journey in Middletown began, however, Firshein was drafted during the Korean War, and before that, grew up in Brooklyn as a second-generation Russian Jew. No wonder he’s stayed at Wesleyan so long—he fit in from the beginning.
When Firshein’s tenure began, Wesleyan’s student body consisted of only 600 boys and the science buildings at the time were made up of only the Shanklin and Hall Laboratories for biology and chemistry, the physics building (the current student center), the observatory, and Judd Hall. Times have changed since then; Wesleyan began admitting women, the enrollment expanded and the campus landscape evolved. One factor that has not changed very much since those pre-hippie days, however, is Firshein, a staple in any undergrad’s diet of NSM classes.
You have to remember that when Firshein began teaching science, biology was more like zoology and molecular biology professors were just people who had better eyesight than the rest of the population (just kidding). Firshein was part of a wave in hiring that upstarted an increase in research and expansion in the sciences at Wesleyan, one of only a few universities (much less liberal arts schools) with two life science departments. Soon after his installation to the faculty, Firshein helped expand the MB&B department and in 1961 was awarded a $64,000 grant by the National Cancer Institute, a value and standard which the University and faculty in his wake have held in high regard ever since.
While initially teaching introductory biology, Firshein had three goals when he arrived at Wesleyan: 1) he wanted to do, and be funded for, his own research, 2) he wanted to find out if he could teach, and 3) he wanted to publish his research. Forty-six years later, he has found the answers via a career that has been highlighted by everything from fights over air conditioners to receiving national awards.
Eight years after Firshein arrived in Middletown, he applied for the Career Development Award given by the National Institutes of Health. Enabling a university to hire an additional assistant professor by freeing up the salary of the award winner (which is paid by NIH), the award gives greater access to research opportunities for the winner. No one thought Firshein even had a chance after he applied, but he obviously did; he was awarded the honor and from 1965-1970 spent his time as a “biological celebrity” right here at Wesleyan.
Some may argue that Firshein has remained a science superstar—others (probably innocent, humanities-hungry frosh or disgruntled MB&B majors) might argue he has since become a difficult old man who says what no one else is willing to and thinks molecular biology is “the new black.” As a self-proclaimed “big fish in a little pond,” Firshein speaks his mind and isn’t afraid of anyone.
A world-traveler, pianist, sketch artist and political-state-of-Israel devotee, he has imposed his unique character on some eight to ten THOUSAND students. Slipping Yiddish words and wry but surprisingly funny jokes into his lectures, Firshein is regarded by many students as the grandfather of the MB&B department. He has co-authored and published research papers with a select 25 of his students and he has been a part of the Wesleyan community for 27% of the total time this school has been an institution.
A lot will change in the years after Firshein moves on and is sketching the biology of various Caribbean islands, but undergraduates, graduates and faculty alike will continue on a path that he and the other new-age faculty members began paving nearly 50 years ago. Along with the rest of the faculty, Firshein has recently been fighting for a new building (Hall-Atwater, which now houses 26 faculty members plus graduate students, was originally built for half that many people) and wishes he could have the opportunity to use it himself. I have a feeling, however, he’ll be back to visit.
“I still have the passion for this stuff,” Firshein said. “I could keep teaching forever.”
There is no question that Bill Firshein is a cornerstone of the MB&B department, but until his retirement at the age of 74 in January of 2005, it will remain a mystery how he can be who he is; a unique balance of “sometimes-offensive” forthrightness, clever intellectualism and a jocular demeanor.