Carl Woese was a brilliant scientist and ground-breaking researcher.
The University of Illinois — and the world — lost a giant Sunday when the famed microbiologist and evolutionist Carl Woese died at age 84.
Universities across the globe are filled with talented and dedicated researchers whose discoveries explain and enhance much about our world. But how many can be described as someone who "rewrote the textbook in evolutionary biology," as Woese was accurately described by Gene Robinson, the director of the UI's Institute for Genomic Biology.
A visionary who pondered the great questions that lay at the root of our existence, Woese was best known and much honored for his discovery of the third branch of the tree of life, certain microbes now called archaea that were distinct from the other two branches of life — prokaryotes (bacteria) and eukaryotes (plants and animals).
Woese had an eclectic academic background, studying math, medicine and biophysics. He joined the UI faculty in microbiology in 1964, establishing a reputation as a demanding professor, a painstaking researcher and a thinker who pondered deep and difficult questions.
It's fair to say that most people could hardly understand the questions Woese studied, let alone the complicated answers he found. But they boiled down to the essence of life.
"Where'd you come from? This is a forever, perennial question," as he once described it.
Woese modestly assessed his job as "trying to construct a part of that road."
He succeeded in doing so, establishing himself as one of the great scholars in the UI's long and distinguished history, and, in the process, laying the foundation for solving some of the great mysteries of life.