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10/09/1995 07:00:00

Biologist Ed Lewis Shares Nobel Prize in Medicine

PASADENA—The Medical Nobel Assembly at Sweden's Karolinska Institute announced today that Edward B. Lewis, Caltech's Thomas Hunt Morgan Professor of Biology, Emeritus, will share the 1995 Nobel Prize in medicine with two other scientists for "the genetic control of early embryonic development." This is the 23rd Nobel Prize won by a Caltech faculty member or a Caltech alumnus.

Lewis, 77, is renowned for his work on the genetics of Drosophila fruit flies. He has been at Caltech as a student and faculty member since 1939, and for the past five and a half decades he has been studying genetic mutations in fruit flies and how these affect an insect's development. As the citation accompanying the announcement explained, "his pioneering work on homeotic genes induced other scientists to examine families of analogous genes in higher organisms."

"As you can imagine, I'm overwhelmed. It's quite a shock," said Lewis by phone from Ascona, Switzerland, where he is attending a scientific conference. "I think that it's wonderful for my colleagues, because they're very deserving. It's also wonderful that the academy recognized basic research. The benefits of research into the genetics of fruit flies have turned out to be very important for understanding human development and the mechanisms underlying some genetic diseases."

"Ed's contributions have been very profound," said Thomas E. Everhart, president of Caltech. "His work has had, and will continue to have, an important impact on medicine and on our understanding of how organisms, including humans, develop."

In the 1950s Lewis played a key role in discovering and explaining the role of homeotic genes, genes that influence how the undifferentiated cells in a fertilized embryo separate into a head and a tail end, and how the eyes, legs, antennae, and other organs all form in their correct positions. These genes are highly conserved—that is, they are very similar—in all organisms, and play a role in the development of everything from fruit flies to mice to humans.

Lewis, a native of Wilkes–Barre, Pennsylvania, earned his BA in 1939 from the University of Minnesota, and his PhD in 1942 from Caltech. He currently resides in San Marino, California.

Written by John Avery