Seymour Benzer, 86, a biologist whose research with fruit flies helped create the basis for modern neuroscience, died Nov. 30, 2007.
Benzer, the child of Jewish immigrants to Brooklyn from a Polish shtetl, was “one of the great scientists of our era,” Caltech Biology Department Chairman Elliot Meyerowitz said in a statement. “He was an amazing person, a truly original scientific thinker, and an adventurous character both in and out of his scientific work.”
He was described as brash and eccentric, “a free spirit with a taste for crashing Hollywood funerals and eating strange food (filet of snake, crocodile tail),” in a 2000 book profiling his work, “Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior,” by Jonathan Weiner.
Kirkus Reviews describer Benzer as “the fly man par excellence and a dream subject for profiling,curious and restless.”
Dr. P. Dash, in comments on Amazon about the book, described Benzer as “a soft-spoken, self-effacing genius.”
According to the Associated Press, Benzer’s research in the 1960s countered the common belief that human behavior was shaped primarily by environment, giving genes a far bigger role than they were previously assigned.
“The impact is opening up the whole idea that behavior can be dissected by manipulation, studying the genes,” Benzer
told The Associated Press. “It’s an entire cycle. Every step of the way is under genetic control.”
His research led to major discoveries in the exploration of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Benzer won the $500,000 Albany Medical Center prize, the richest medicine and biomedical research prize in the U.S. in 2006.
He “paved the way for scientists to uncover links between genes and human behavior which have resulted in our improved
ability to treat diseases of the brain and central nervous system,” Albany Med president James J. Barba said at the time.
Benzer manipulated the gene mutations of fruit flies in the late 1960s. He and a student changed with way flies sleep by injecting them with other flies’ genes. Many in the field felt he should have received the Nobel Prize for that and related work.
“He was a giant in science,” David Anderson, Caltech biology professor and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical
Institute, said in a statement. “He started an entire field, and few people can claim to have done that.”
Benzer described his Brooklyn Jewish roots in an oral history recorded at Cal Tech in 1990 and 1991, in which he described his lifelong interest in science as supplanting religious beliefs.
“I didn’t have any religious feelings at all. I just remember it all seemed like nonsense. I was interested in science quite young….Out of respect for…my father, I used to go to the synagogue with him for the High Holy Days like Yom Kippur and sit in the synagogue, but I’d take along a physics book that I would hold over the Bible and read surreptitiously. This was already when I was somewhat older, past the Bar Mitzvah, but that was the one thing I would do because it was a shame for the father not to have his son accompany him. He looked the other way while I was reading.”
Benzer’s parents came from Poland, from a small Jewish shtetl, west of Warsaw, called Sochaczew, His parents worked in the needle trades in New York’s Lower East Side, and he grew up in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood.
“I grew up thinking there were only two types of people in the world, Jews and Italians,” he said.
Benzer graduated from Brooklyn College and received his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in physics from Purdue University. Benzer is survived by wife Carol Miller, daughters Barbara Freidin and Martha Goldberg, son Alexander Benzer, stepsons Renny and Douglas Feldman, and four grandchildren.
Here is a brief excerpt from “Time, Love, Memory”:
Seymour Benzer’s Laboratory runs along two corridors of Church Hall at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. His private workroom is at the corner where the corridors meet. Here he keeps his own tools and trophies, and an owl’s hours. It is a windowless room lined with plastic bins that Benzer labeled decades ago in his spidery black script: Lenses, Mirrors, Needles, Wires, Pencils, Switches, Toothpicks, Pipe Cleaners, anything and everything he might need for an experiment in the middle of the night, including Teeth (Human and Shark).
The old gray benchtop is all test tubes and bottles: mostly standard-issue laboratory stock, but here and there a half-pint milk bottle with heavy scratched glass and antique advertising (“5 cents–Just a Little Better”) stoppered with a foam-rubber cork. These tubes and bottles hold a sampling of the thousands of mutants that Benzer and his students, his students’ students, and his competitors have engineered.
What are the connections, the physical connections, between genes and behavior? What is the chain of reactions that leads from a single gene to a bark, or a laugh, or a song, or a thought, or a memory, or a glimpse of red, or a turn toward a light, or a raised hand, or a raised wing? The first scientists to look seriously at this question were the revolutionaries who figured out what genes are made of atom by atom–the founders of the science now known as molecular biology. Seymour Benzer was one of those revolutionaries, and he and his students took the enterprise farthest. Benzer’s work on the problem was quiet, his students’ work was quiet, and their story has never been told. But to a large extent the hard science of genes and behavior came out of their fly bottles. In this sense the fly bottle is one of the most significant legacies that the science of the twentieth century bequeaths to the twenty-first.