PASADENA, Calif.--Seymour Benzer, a founder of the field of modern genetics, died from a stroke on Friday, November 30, at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena. He was 86.
An emeritus professor at the California Institute of Technology, Benzer's lasting impact on modern-day genetics can be seen in continuing work whose foundations he helped lay. Studies in gene mutations and regulation and in the genetic underpinnings of behavior can all be attributed to his groundbreaking research.
A native of New York City, Benzer attended Brooklyn College, earning a bachelor's degree in physics in 1942. After getting his PhD in physics at Purdue University in 1947, he stayed on to teach the subject. A visit to Cold Spring Harbor Lab in 1948, followed by a two-year stint as a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech in the lab of Nobel Laureate Max Delbrück, introduced Benzer to the field of bacteriophage genetics, the study of viruses that infect bacteria. He immersed himself in it.
At Purdue, Benzer pioneered a technique of recombination in mutant bacteriophages, providing the first evidence that a single gene can be divided. He proved that mutations are distributed throughout many parts of a single gene through experiments that are widely regarded as among the most elegant in modern genetics. They are also thought to have laid the foundation for the later understanding of the fine structure and regulation of the gene.
Benzer returned to Caltech as a biology professor in 1967. His work with bacteriophages led him to experiments with Drosophila melanogaster. He used mutants of this fruit fly to pioneer the field of neurogenetics, and his lab discovered the first circadian-rhythm mutants in a series of studies of how genes affect behavior. These experiments were replicated for other animal models and formed the foundation for the field of molecular biology of behavior. In his recent work, Benzer studied neurodegeneration in fruit flies in an attempt to find an approach for suppressing human diseases by modeling them, and for uncovering the genetics of aging.
Throughout a career that spanned physics, biophysics, molecular biology, and behavioral genetics, Benzer garnered many honors. His memberships included the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was awarded the National Medal of Science, the Wolf Prize in Medicine from Israel, the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the International Prize for Biology from Japan, the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, and the Albany Medical Center Prize. He was also one of few two-time winners of the Gairdner International Award.
In 2000, Benzer was the subject of the book Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jonathan Weiner. Of the widely acclaimed book, reviewer Lewis Wolpert in his review for the New York Times wrote, "Benzer has many gifts beyond cleverness. He has that special imagination and view of the world that makes a great scientist."
Benzer was active in his lab at Caltech until his death. Last year he spoke at the centennial celebration of his former mentor Delbrück, fondly recounting the lab shenanigans from more than five decades ago.
"Seymour was one of the great scientists of our era and made fundamental contributions in several areas," says Elliot Meyerowitz, the Beadle Professor of Biology and chair of Caltech's Division of Biology. "He was an amazing person, a truly original scientific thinker, and an adventurous character both in and out of his scientific work. Everybody knew him, and enjoyed his legendary wit. He was a central part of the life of the biology division and we will all miss him."
"It was a great privilege to be able to work with him," adds David Anderson, Caltech's Sperry Professor of Biology and investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Anderson was recruited by Benzer in 1986 and switched fields to begin working on behavior in flies in 2002. "I'm very proud that I was able to publish with him. He was a revered colleague and mentor and I'm going to miss him. He was a giant in science. He started an entire field, and few people can claim to have done that."
Benzer is survived by his wife, Carol Miller; two daughters, Barbara Freidin and Martha Goldberg; a son, Alexander Benzer; two stepsons, Renny and Douglas Feldman; and four grandchildren. Services are pending.