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Those We Lost in 2019 – The Scientist

For a complete list of our obituaries, see here.

SYDNEY BRENNER SCIENTIFIC SYMPOSIUM

Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner died in April at the age of 92.

Brenner was best known for his discovery of sequences that stop protein translation, mRNA, and his investigation of the nematode C. elegans, which he realized would be an ideal model organism to study cell differentiation and organ development. That work won him the 2002 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.  

“[H]is great strength was in experiments, and in particular the choice and execution of ones that were both important and ingenious,” Francis Crick, the codiscoverer of DNA who shared an office with Brenner at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in the UK, wrote in a tribute to Brenner in The Scientist in 2002. 

US DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY, OAK RIDGE NATIONAL LABORATORY

American geneticist Liane Russell, famous for her work on the deleterious effects of prenatal radiation exposure and the chromosomal basis for sex determination in mammals, died in July at age 95.

She and her husband William Russell established the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) Mouse House, an extensive colony of mutant mice bred to model the effects of exposure to radiation.

Russell’s work led to a healthcare policy to ask women if they are pregnant before X-raying them and also to avoid X-rays shortly after menstruation in women of childbearing age.  

Inventor of the polymerase chain reaction technique and winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993, Kary Mullis, died in August at age 74. 

Mullis was known as a “weird” figure in science and a “flamboyant” philanderer who evangelized the use of LSD, denied the evidence for both global warming and HIV as a cause of AIDS, consulted for O.J. Simpson’s legal defense, and formed a company that sold jewelry embedded with celebrities’ DNA, according to a 1998 profile in The Washington Post

Mullis wrote in The Scientist in 2003 that his first attempt at PCR in 1983 was “a long-shot experiment. . . . so [at midnight] I poured myself a cold Becks into a prechilled 500 ml beaker from the isotope freezer for luck, and went home. I ran a gel the next afternoon [and] stained it with ethidium. It took several months to arrive at conditions [that] would produce a convincing result.”

Even still, Science and Nature both rejected the resulting manuscript, which was ultimately published in Methods in Enzymology in 1987 and helped earn Mullis his Nobel. 

Chemical engineer George Rosenkranz, the director of the pharmaceutical company that first synthesized a synthetic form of the hormone progesterone, died in June at the age of 102.

He and colleagues developed norethindrone, a synthetic version of progesterone, which was then used in the combined oral contraceptive pill and approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1959. The work, along with efforts in biotech, earned him many awards from scientific organizations and from the Mexican government.

Despite that, “he was a very humble man,” Roberto Rosenkranz, one of his sons, told the Los Angeles Times. “He never was out to take credit.”

COURTESY OF ERAKA BATH

Ophthalmologist and inventor Patricia Bath, whose research on lasers advanced cataract surgery, died in May at the age of 76.

During her medical internship in New York, she conducted an epidemiological study on blindness and found the rate of the condition among the black population was twice that of the white population. The finding led her to start the field of community ophthalmology, caring for underserved populations. She promoted the field by traveling to perform surgeries, training clinicians, and donating equipment. 

Bath then moved to the University of California, Los Angeles, medical center in 1974 and in the 1980s began studying lasers for their potential to treat eye disorders. In 1988, she patented a device called Laserphaco Probe, which removes cataracts. 

“I had a few obstacles but I had to shake it off,” Bath told ABC News in 2018. “Hater-ation, segregation, racism, that’s the noise you have to ignore that and keep your eyes focused on the prize, it’s just like Dr. Martin Luther King said, so that’s what I did.”

Nobel laureate Paul Greengard, who discovered that the brain communicates with chemical signals, died in April. He was 93.

“Paul was an iconic scientist whose extraordinary seven-decade career transformed our understanding of neuroscience,” Richard Lifton, president of Rockefeller University, where Greengard had been a faculty member, said in a statement. “His discoveries laid out a new paradigm requiring the understanding of the biochemistry of nerve cells rather than simply their electrical activities. This work has had great impact.”

Greengard’s work revealed how the brain uses dopamine and other chemicals to send signals from one nerve cell to another, discoveries that won him a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000. Greengard used the prize money to establish an award for women doing outstanding biomedical research and named the prize after his birth mother. “Drawing attention to the achievements of women working in science,” he and Baylor College of Medicine professor Huda Zoghbi wrote in The Scientist in 2014, “sets a powerful example for those women still dreaming of their own success.”

Public health whistleblower, physician, and researcher, Shuping Wang, died in September at the age of 59.

Wang’s career started in China in the 1980s, where she was a doctor and hepatitis researcher. In 1992, she was testing blood serum samples from a plasma collection station where she worked and realized that unsanitary blood collection methods had led to a hepatitis C epidemic among people who donated and received plasma at the clinic. She reported the findings to officials and was fired, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

She took a job at the Zhoukou Health Bureau and, analyzing the blood samples there, she found 13 percent of donors had HIV and the cross-contamination there was also leading to the spread of the virus. Officials challenged her results and asked her to change the data for a report that would be sent to the provincial Department of Health. Again, she refused. 

Her findings lead to the shutdown of her clinic and the establishment of HIV testing for donors. Still, roughly 1 million farmers were infected with HIV from selling their blood plasma at Chinese collection sites during the epidemic, according to The Washington Post

In September, a few days before Wang’s death, a play about her life, The King of Hell’s Palace, opened at Hampstead Theatre in London. 

COURTESY OF RUTGERS UNIVERSITY

The developer of a widely used DNA analysis technique called shotgun sequencing, Joachim Messing, died in September. He was 73.

“Jo’s approach to the development of his DNA sequencing tools was to spread them freely and widely”—that is, he did not patent them, Robert Goodman, the executive dean of agriculture and natural resources at Rutgers University, where Messing was a faculty member, told The New York Times. “He was an incredibly generous man.”

His development of the DNA analysis technique and his use of it made Messing the most-cited scientist of the 1980s, according to the Institute for Scientific Information. He went on to study crop modifications, such as boosting amino acids in corn to make it more nutritious and increasing crops’ drought resistance.

TUFTS UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE

Tufts University researcher Stuart Levy died in September at the age of 80. 

Levy studied antibiotic resistance and in the 1970s showed that bacteria resistant to the drugs could move from the intestine of farm animals to farm workers, a discovery that had implications for bacterial spread in facilities such as hospitals. After Levy published his findings, other researchers started to study antibiotic resistance in hospitals. 

“It is hard to overstate his importance in limiting the spread of antibiotic resistance, particularly in hospital settings,” Ralph Isberg, a professor of molecular biology & microbiology at Tufts, and his colleague John Leong wrote in a statement sent to The Scientist

Neuroscientist Rahul Desikan, who developed an MRI-based map of the human cortex and identified genetic risk factors for neurogenerative diseases, died in July from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He was 41.

The MRI-based map, which “quickly became one of the most widely-used tools in the neuroscience community, has been cited more than 4500 times,” Christopher Hess, a colleague of Desikan at University of California, San Francisco, wrote in a memorial. “Color figures of the atlas in its various forms still fill the pages of our leading scientific journals.”

Desikan and his colleagues had just started, in 2016, what was then the largest study on the genetics of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) when he began to experience his first symptoms the disease. He was diagnosed with ALS a few months later.

“I went into medicine to take care of patients with brain diseases. Now, I have one of the diseases that I study,” Desikan said in a press release earlier this year. Even with the disease, he said, he continued “to find neurology fascinating and beautiful.” 

Ashley Yeager is an associate editor at The Scientist. Email her at ayeager@the-scientist.com. Follow her on Twitter @AshleyJYeager.

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