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02/15/2002 08:00:00

Caltech Molecular Biologist Norman Davidson Dies

Norman Davidson, whose groundbreaking work in molecular biology at the California Institute of Technology led to a better understanding of the genetic blueprint of life, died at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena on Thursday, February 14, after a brief illness. He was 85.

Davidson was the Norman Chandler Professor of Chemical Biology, Emeritus, at Caltech, where he had been a faculty member since 1946. He took emeritus status in 1986, but served as executive officer for biology from 1989 to 1997 and remained active in research until his death.

"It was with the deepest personal regret that I heard of the death of Norman Davidson," said Caltech president David Baltimore. "Norman was a friend long before the prospect of my being president of Caltech arose, and he symbolized for me the essence of the Institute.

"His movement into biology from a background in chemistry allowed him to play a special role in the development of molecular biology. He saw imaginative ways that structural understanding could illuminate functional questions. He trained some of the finest and most imaginative people in the field. And he was deeply loved by all with whom he came in contact because of his unalloyed commitment to pushing the frontiers of understanding.

"Caltech is diminished by the loss of this great man who, undaunted by infirmity, almost to the end drove himself around the campus in his cart, asking questions, making suggestions, and still fully contributing to the institution to which he had given so much of his life," Baltimore said.

Davidson was born April 5, 1916, in Chicago. He earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry at the University of Chicago in 1937, and completed another bachelor of science degree at the University of Oxford in 1939 as a Rhodes Scholar. In 1941 he completed his doctorate in chemistry at the University of Chicago.

During the war he worked for the National Defense Research Committee Project at the University of Southern California, and for the Division of War Research at both Columbia University and the University of Chicago. From 1943 to 1945, he worked in the University of Chicago's metallurgical laboratory on the Plutonium Project.

After the war and a brief stint as a researcher at the Radio Corporation of America, Davidson joined the Caltech faculty as a chemistry instructor, and remained on the faculty for the rest of his life. He became a tenured professor of chemistry in 1952, a full professor in 1957, executive officer for chemistry in 1967, and Norman Chandler Professor of Chemical Biology in 1982. He also served briefly as interim chair of the Division of Biology in 1989.

Davidson was known in the scientific community particularly for his innovative methods in bridging the gap between the physical and biological sciences. He pioneered new methods in physical chemistry and electron microscopy, the latter proving especially useful for genetic mapping and exploring the information properties of DNA and RNA.

In 1996, when he was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Clinton, Davidson was working on new methods for studying electrical signaling in the nervous system and the ways in which the system changes during learning and memory formation. He was cited by the White House "for breakthroughs in chemistry and biology which have led to the earliest understanding of the overall structure of genomes.

"For example," the White House statement continued, "Davidson's research on DNA established the principle of nucleic acid renaturation, one of the most important principles in molecular biology and a primary tool for deciphering the structure and function of genes."

Davidson was also a founding member of the advisory council to the Human Genome Project.

"Norman was a major figure in both chemistry and biology for more than half a century, and one of the people who helped bring the two together, not just at Caltech, but in the subject as a whole," said Caltech provost Steve Koonin.

Henry Lester, who is Bren Professor of Biology at Caltech, noted the importance of Davidson's work in neuroscience since the late 1970s. "Norman made contributions in several important fields," said Lester. Davidson and Lester began collaborating in 1983 and shared laboratory space until Davidson's death.

"His laboratory helped define the molecular biology of membrane excitability, including ion channels, transporters, and receptors," Lester added.

Davidson's many awards included his designation as the 1980 California Scientist of the Year, the Robert A. Welch Award in Chemistry (1989), the Dickson Prize for Science (1985), and the Peter Debye Award by the American Chemical Society (1971). He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences for 42 years, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science since 1984, and held an honorary doctorate from the University of Chicago.

Davidson is survived by his wife, Annemarie Davidson, of Sierra Madre, California; four children, Terry Davidson of Poway, California, Laureen Agee of Mammoth Lakes, California, Jeff Davidson of Cayucos, California, and Brian Davidson of Walnut Creek, California; and eight grandchildren.