Colleagues pay finals respects to UI microbiologist
URBANA — A who's who of University of Illinois academia turned out Saturday to pay tribute to the life work of one of their own whose discoveries upended the basic assumptions of how life evolved, all the while remaining a humble and accessible educator.
There was nothing somber about the tribute to Carl Woese, 84, a highly decorated microbiologist who gave 48 years of his life to the UI in pursuit of his passion. He died Dec. 30 at his home in Urbana.
Indeed, there was live jazz music and plenty of happy pictures of the iconic scientist clad in his comfortable flannel shirts at the 90-minute memorial at the Levis Faculty Center on campus. An estimated 250 attended the service, which was followed by a reception for attendees, including his wife Gabriella, and two children.
"He grabbed lots of us. He attracted kids because he had this impish sense of humor," said Norman Pace, distinguished professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, former student and longtime colleague of Mr. Woese.
Most of the more than dozen speakers who reminisced about Mr. Woese, including UI President Robert Easter, Chancellor Phyllis Wise, former Chancellor Richard Herman, and Gene Robinson, director of the Institute for Genomic Biology where Mr. Woese spent the last years of his career, talked about the man's humor, humility, and love for students.
They also noted his courage in the face of overwhelming skepticism and outright shunning by professional colleagues about his theories.
"Here was a man dismissed and belittled by the biology establishment for decades who turned out to be right," said Herman.
Mr. Woese is probably best known for his discovery of a third domain of life, wrote colleague Nigel Goldenfeld in a biography of Mr. Woese for the service.
"Woese and his colleagues wrote two papers published in 1977 that overturned a universally held assumption about the basic structure of the tree of life. They reported that the microbes now known as archaea were as distinct from bacteria as plants and animals are. Prior to this finding, scientists had grouped archaea together with bacteria, and asserted that the tree of life had two main branches — the bacteria (which they called prokarya), and everything else (the eukarya). The new discovery added archaea as a third main branch of the evolutionary family tree."
A UI physicist for 28 years, Goldenfeld has spent the last 13 years in the study of biology and had been a close colleague of Mr. Woese since 2001. Goldenfeld said sometimes his meetings with his friend spanned minutes, sometimes hours.
"Mostly we talked about Carl's intuitive picture of early life, at a time before cells even existed in the sense that they do now, before there were species or perhaps even individual organisms," said Goldenfeld. "He first wrote about these ideas in the 1970s when I was still in high school, but very few people paid attention or understood what he was talking about. For him, this was the holy grail, even more so than the discovery of the archaea."
"We discovered that something like his picture of early life was the only thing that could explain the way the genetic code evolved, in particular that it would evolve to minimize and mitigate the effects of mutations," said Goldenfeld.
Goldenfeld had the crowd smiling as he recalled "arguing over commas" with Mr. Woese on a paper that it took them a year to co-author and Mr. Woese's "ancient (desk) chair, the one with a thick pad of washroom towels taped to the arms as a primitive and zero-budget forerunner of ergonomic design."
Karl Stetter, an emeritus professor at the Universitat Regensburg, traveled from Germany to honor his colleague, whom he called "my most important and stimulating collaborator and close friend." Robinson credited Stetter with carrying forward Mr. Woese's work in Europe.
"Carl Woese's work has changed our view of the whole living world," said Stetter. "Thank you, Carl. Your discoveries are immortal and will last forever to your fame and the benefit of mankind."
Ruth Watkins, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said she took an "enjoyable journey" through Mr. Woese's personnel file, replete with letters of praise from administrators as well as articulately crafted memos from him.
"His disdain for bureacracy was clear," she said, drawing laughs from the audience. A few even applauded when she said one of Mr. Woese's proposals — the addition to the faculty of a historian in science — would be happening this year.
Among Mr. Woese's professional awards were a MacArthur Foundation grant in 1984; his election to the national Academy of Sciences in 1988; the 1992 Leeuwenhoek Medal, microbiology's premier honor from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences; a National Medal of Science in 2000; and the Crafoord Prize in Biosciences in 2003.