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Finding Aid for the William J. Dreyer Papers 1955-2006
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Access
  • Publication Rights
  • Preferred Citation
  • Acquisition Information
  • Biography
  • Scope and Content
  • Related Material
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: William J. Dreyer Papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1955-2006
    Collection number: 10247-MS
    Creator: Dreyer, William J. 1928-2004
    Extent: 15.25 linear feet
    Repository: California Institute of Technology. Caltech Archives
    Pasadena, California 91125
    Abstract: The consulting files, patent files and correspondence, and a selection of working papers, general correspondence, and biographical papers of the biochemist William J. Dreyer, known as the William J. Dreyer Papers in the California Institute of Technology Archives. A specialist in molecular immunology, Dreyer was professor of biology at Caltech from 1963 until his death in 2004. At Caltech he was involved in the creation of a series of automated instruments for high-sensitivity protein sequencing. He held over 20 patents and was influential in the creation of the biotechnology industry.
    Physical location: Archives, California Institute of Technology.
    Languages represented in the collection: English


    The collection is open for research. Researchers must apply in writing for access. One file within general correspondence is closed for privacy reasons.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright may not have been assigned to the California Institute of Technology Archives. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Caltech Archivist. Permission for publication is given on behalf of the California Institute of Technology Archives as the owner of the physical items and, unless explicitly stated otherwise, is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], William J. Dreyer Papers, 10247-MS, Caltech Archives, California Institute of Technology.

    Acquisition Information

    The William J. Dreyer papers were donated to the Caltech Archives in 2008 by Janet Roman Dreyer, the creator's widow.


    William Jakob Dreyer was born in Michigan and raised in Wisconsin and Oregon, with extended periods of visiting in Norway, his father's homeland. He attended Reed College (BA 1952) and the University of Washington (PhD in biochemistry, 1956). Early in his career he became interested in the molecular basis of development and heredity, and he also pioneered instruments that automated chemical analyses. After a period at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where he worked with C. Anfinsen, G. Streisinger, and M. Nirenberg, he took a professorial appointment at Caltech in the biology division in 1963. His early work at Caltech centered on investigations of genetic coding for protein structure using immunological techniques. He proposed that genes could be reshuffled to provide additional information for the formation of proteins. With Leroy Hood and later Michael Hunkapillar he worked on the design of an automated protein sequencer and was associated with the founding of the company Applied Biosystems. Dreyer also consulted with many other biotech companies and held upwards of 20 patents on biochemical apparatus and processes. He maintained a life-long interest in the human brain and how genes program behavior. Dreyer was an early member of Caltech's innovative Beckman Institute and an enthusiastic promoter of computer imaging for biological investigations.

    Scope and Content

    The decision was made to do minimal processing on the papers of William Dreyer in order to make the collection available for research in a timely fashion. As a result, minimal sorting has been undertaken, and folders will often overlap or be redundant in their contents. Many original folders have been retained, and the series order follows loosely the original order created by Professor Dreyer. Discarding has been limited to obvious duplicate material (especially reprints) and some printed and xerographic matter. The papers contain extensive material on Professor Dreyer's activities outside of Caltech, specifically, his consulting work for biotechnology companies beginning in the early 1970s and continuing throughout his career. During his consulting work, Dreyer invented and tested many instruments and methods for microchemical analysis for which he later acquired patents. The patent files form the largest series in the papers and should be used in conjunction with the consulting files, with which they overlap. Information on Dreyer's inventions, including the protein sequencer, may be found here. The Caltech material in the collection is limited and incomplete but it gives some picture of his campus activities. The most important files are those on his grants and on the Caltech Biology Division. A small set of biographical materials, a set of reprints, and a small amount of visual material complete the collection.
    The collection is organized into the following series:
    • Series 1. Companies and consulting, ca 1970-2000. 9 boxes
    • Series 2. Patents, ca. 1970-2006. 10 boxes
    • Series 3. Professional activities miscellany, 1968-2003. 4 boxes
    • Series 4. Biographical. One-half box
    • Series 5. Reprints, 1955-2000. 5 boxes
    • Series 6. Films and slides, 1973-1976. 1 storage box

    Related Material

    Oral history 1999 . This 129-page interview with Shirley K. Cohen covers Dreyer's personal life and scientific career. He recalls especially his struggles to convince others of the validity of his ideas about image-thinking (per Roger Sperry's studies of the split brain) and his novel approaches to the study of proteins. He also elaborates on conflicts with colleagues Hood and Hunkapiller over invention of the protein sequencer.

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.


    California Institute of Technology