Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Walter Gehring (1939 - 2014)

I just learned today that Walter Gehring died in a car accident in Greece on May 29th. I learned of his death from the obituary by Michael Levine in Science [Walter Gehring (1939–2014)]. There's another obituary on the Biozentrum (Basel, Switzerland) website [Obituary for Walter Gehring (1939 – 2014)]. He was only seven years older than me.

I first met Walter Gerhing when I was a post-doc in Alfred Tissières lab in Geneva (Switzerland) in the mid-1070s. The two labs collaborated on cloning and characterizing the major heat shock gene (Hsp70) of Drosophila melanogaster. Paul Schedl and Spyros Artavanis-Tsakonis made the library in Gehring's lab in 1976-1977 and Marc-Edouard Mirault and I isolated the mRNA for screening and then identified the genes we cloned. The result was three papers in Cell (see below). (John Lis, then in David Hogness' lab, was cloning the same gene.)

I met Gerhing dozens of times but I only had a few conversations with him one-on-one. We always talked about evolution. I always found him to be very charming and very curious and not embarrassed to admit that he didn't know something. Other post-docs and students in his lab have different impressions.

As Michael Levine puts it ...
An amazing group of students and postdocs was attracted to the Gehring lab over the years: Eric Wieschaus (Nobelist), Christianne Nüsslein-Volhard (Nobelist), David Ish-Horowicz, Spyros Artavanis-Tsakonas, Paul Schedl, Alex Schier, Georg Halder, Hugo Bellen, and Markus Affolter, to mention just a few. I worked closely with two of my future lifelong friends and colleagues: Ernst Hafen and Bill McGinnis. The lab was an absolute blast, but a strange mix of anarchy and oppression. Walter permitted considerable independence, but was hardly laissez-faire. He could be confrontational, and did not hesitate to call us out (particularly me) when he felt we were misbehaving.

I found Walter to be a complicated character. He had the mannerisms of an authoritative Herr Doktor Professor, but was also folksy and unaffected and always ready to laugh and joke. He sometimes felt competitive with his students and postdocs, but was also highly supportive and proud of our independent careers. In short, I believe the key to Walter's success was his yin and yang embodiment of old-world scholar and modern competitive scientist. He was able to exude charm and empathy, but nothing we did seemed to be quite good enough. In other words, tough love, possibly the perfect prescription for eliciting the very best efforts from his students and postdocs.
Walter Gehring was one of a small group people who changed the way I think about science.

Artavanis-Tsakonas, S., Schedl, P., Mirault, M.-E., Moran, L. and J. Lis (1979) Genes for the 70,000 dalton heat shock protein in two cloned D. melanogaster DNA segments. Cell 17, 9-18. [doi: 10.1016/0092-8674(79)90290-3]

Moran, L., Mirault, M.-E., Tissières, A., Lis, J., Schedl, P., Artavanis-Tsakonas, S. and W.J. Gehring (1979) Physical map of two D. melanogaster DNA segments containing sequences coding for the 70,000 dalton heat shock protein. Cell 17, 1-8. [doi: 10.1016/0092-8674(79)90289-7]

Schedl, P., Artavanis-Tsakonas, S., Steward, R., Gehring, W. J., Mirault, M.-E., Goldschmidt-Clermont, M., Moran, L. and A. Tissières (1978) Two hybrid plasmids with D. melanogaster DNA sequences complementary to mRNA coding for the major heat shock protein. Cell 14, 921-929. [doi: 10.1016/0092-8674(78)90346-X]

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