The Johns Hopkins Gazette: November 29, 1999
November 29, 1999
VOL. 29, NO. 13


Remembering Dan Nathans

Colleagues look back at a career devoted to serving Johns Hopkins

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Daniel Nathans, esteemed scientist, professor, former interim president of the university and recipient of the Nobel Prize, died in his sleep Nov. 16 from leukemia. He was 71.

Funeral services were private. The date for a memorial service will be announced soon.

University Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the School of Medicine, where he was a faculty member for more than three decades, Nathans also was senior investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Hopkins. He served as interim president of the university from June 1995 until August 1996. In addition to being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978, Nathans was a 1993 recipient of the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest scientific award.

Interim President Daniel Nathans after receiving a surprise honorary degree at commencement, May 22, 1996. Sadako Ogata, United Nations high commissioner for refugees, is at left. Among those applauding Nathans are, middle row from the left, trustees Martin Macht, Aurelia Bolton and Randolph Bromery; rear row, trustee R. Champlin Sheridan, associate dean of Engineering Candice Dalrymple and trustee Shale Stiller.

The research for which Nathans, his colleague Hamilton O. Smith and Swiss microbiologist Werner Arber shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was a basis for much of today's genetic research at Hopkins and elsewhere. Nathans and his students used a restriction enzyme discovered by Smith as "biochemical scissors" to analyze DNA.

As the Nobel Prize committee rightly predicted, the techniques developed by Nathans in working with animal tumor viruses opened up new avenues to study the organization and expression of genes of higher animals and to solve basic problems in developmental biology. In medicine, as the committee predicted, increased knowledge made possible by his focus on genetic mechanisms has helped in the understanding, prevention and treatment of birth defects, hereditary diseases and cancer.

Restriction enzymes have allowed researchers to assemble genes in new combinations, thus giving birth to the entire field of genetic engineering and allowing development of such products as synthetic human insulin, growth hormone and interferon. The use of restriction enzymes to construct maps of the genome of viruses laid the groundwork for the present worldwide effort to map the human genome.

A molecular biologist, Nathans focused his research first on viruses that cause tumors in animals and then on cellular responses to growth factors, the mechanisms that cause cells to grow and multiply. In 1969, while Nathans was studying SV40, a virus that created cancers in apes, Smith came forward with interesting news: He had isolated a protein that could cut a piece of DNA, the material containing the "blueprint" of life.

Nathans applied the restriction enzyme to SV40 DNA and discovered that it cut the DNA in 10 distinct places, creating 11 well-defined fragments. He found ways to use this cutting to help determine where genes began and ended in SV40 DNA, and this helped him locate a gene in the virus that gives the order for production of a tumor-making protein.

Meanwhile, Nathans, Smith and Werner Arber, the Swiss scientist who first predicted the existence of restriction enzymes, woke up one morning in 1978 to the call from Sweden that so many scientists dream about. More honors for Nathans followed. In 1979 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and in 1985 to the American Philosophical Society; from 1990 to 1993 he served on the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

As a physician, Nathans understood human disease and its impact. But he kept his focus on the science. "Scientists don't do research for the prizes," he once explained to a reporter. "They do it because they enjoy discovering or understanding an important phenomenon. The greatest reward is seeing your discovery lead to some practical application, and sometimes that's hard to foresee. But I was always confident that, in the long run, the study of basic genetic mechanisms would contribute to the well-being of people everywhere."

When he was named a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize, Nathans described himself as a "pretty intense" scientist who had never so much as "fantasized" about winning a Nobel. That modest, soft-spoken intensity characterized his career. When the fanfares ended and the spotlights shut down, his colleagues insist, Nathans was always glad to go back quietly to his laboratory and do what he loved best: answer scientific questions and teach.

Swayed by his reputation for quiet, potent leadership, the trustees of the university in 1995 asked him to be interim university president while a search committee sought a permanent appointee for the job.

"It was an interesting job, being the president," Nathans later said with characteristic understatement. "If I learned anything in my first few months, it was that the president has to resolve all the disagreements that no one else can resolve."

He also was clear about why he accepted the job: "I've always considered it a privilege to be here, to lead the kind of life Hopkins has given me the opportunity to lead," he said. "It's a great feeling ... to start your own research program and be given the time, facilities and support ... and to know what comes out of it is up to you. I'd like to preserve that feeling for others. ... And that's a fair part of why I decided to take on the interim presidency."

Born Oct. 30, 1928, in Wilmington, Del., the youngest of eight children, Nathans received his bachelor of science from the University of Delaware in 1950 and earned his M.D. at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis in 1954. Following his residency at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, he served as a clinical associate at the National Cancer Institute and as a guest investigator at the Rockefeller University.

His first faculty appointment was as a Hopkins assistant professor of microbiology in 1962, and he stayed at Hopkins for the rest of his career. He became a full professor in 1967, director of the Department of Microbiology in 1972 and director of the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics in 1981.

Nathans relaxed by reading history or literature, walking, swimming or listening to chamber music. He was married to Joanne Gomberg Nathans, a lawyer who served for years in Baltimore City's Department of Legislative Reference. They have three sons, Eli, a lawyer completing a doctorate in European history at Hopkins; Jeremy, a professor of molecular biology and genetics in the School of Medicine; and Ben, a professor of European history at the University of Pennsylvania; and six grandchildren.

The family requests that memorial contributions be sent to the School of Medicine c/o The Fund for Johns Hopkins Medicine, 1620 McElderry St., Baltimore, MD 21205; please write, "in memory of Dr. Nathans."

Friends and Colleagues Reminisce...

"Dan Nathans was an extraordinary human being. He was brilliant, of course, and his scientific work sparked the ongoing revolution in biotechnology and genetics. But, as one who had the privilege of knowing Dan well, I was always most impressed with the man--modest, soft-spoken, unassuming, even self-effacing.
   "The trustees knew just where to turn when they sought someone with the wisdom to guide Johns Hopkins through an interim in the presidency five years ago. True to form, Dan selflessly stepped back from the laboratory and the science he loved so that he could serve the university. I think I can speak for the whole Hopkins community in saying we mourn his loss deeply."
--William R. Brody, president of Johns Hopkins

"It's difficult to measure the breadth of Dan Nathans' contributions to the School of Medicine because they were so many and so varied. He exerted tremendous intellectual leadership in the school and in the university long before he became [interim] president of the university, and during the 15 years of my tenure, I came to rely heavily on his wise counsel and his friendship. No one was a more trusted member of the faculty."
--Richard Ross, dean emeritus, School of Medicine

"Dan Nathans was the unsung president. He absolutely played a major role, providing critical leadership to the university at a time when we were still in the formation of Johns Hopkins Medicine. It was because of everyone's extraordinary respect for Dan that trustees from both the university and the health system could collegially move forward and create new governance structure.
   "It was also Dan who identified Ed Miller to be the interim dean of the School of Medicine, which certainly showed his sensitivity to leadership capability. It was Dan who worked beautifully, with Provost Steve Knapp, to give all of the divisions of the university the confidence to move forward in a positive and constructive manner.
   "In essence, Dan Nathans was an extraordinary force for change, change that has proven to be in the best interest of both the university and the health system."
--Morris Offit, former chairman, university board of trustees

"Dan Nathans was only a few years older than I am, but he was a father figure. He had exceptionally good sense and was a wonderful scientist. If I had a question about what direction to go--even personal things--I'd go to Dan.
   "One particularly important piece of advice he gave was in 1986, when I was invited to go to one of the first discussions on the Human Genome Project. The call came out of the blue, and I thought the whole idea was strange. So I grabbed the phone and called Dan: 'I got this crazy call. What do you think?' Dan thought a minute and said, 'I think it's good--you should go.' He had a wonderful ability to put things in perspective, to see their importance.
   "Dan wasn't one for small talk. I often got the impression that he thought about every word he spoke. But he also had a fine sense of humor and a great kindness about him. He was one of the greats at Hopkins. He always served well."
--Hamilton Smith, recipient with Nathans of the Nobel Prize and now a researcher with Celera Genomics Corp. in Rockland, Md.

"Dan Nathans was not only an eminent scientist and an able leader; he was also a very fine human being and a good friend to us all. He dedicated nearly four decades of his life to Johns Hopkins. In that time, he always did his utmost for the university and for all the people around the world who benefited from his research. I am deeply saddened by his loss."
--Michael Bloomberg, chairman, university board of trustees

"Dan Nathans was my closest colleague during most of my professional life. It is hard to put into words what he meant to me and so many others at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere. He was universally recognized as an especially creative and influential scientist, one of those who set in motion the great revolution in biology that has taken place over the last several decades.
   "However, many of us will most remember him for the personal qualities that he exemplified. Although he had reached the pinnacle of his profession, he was a gentle and modest man with a warm spirit of generosity. He took as much pleasure in the success of his junior colleagues as he did in his own, and would have counted his influence on the careers of others as one of his greatest legacies."
--Tom Kelly, director, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics

"Daniel Nathans was among the greatest scientists of our time. His pioneering use of restriction enzymes, for which he received the Nobel Prize, was a critical event in the revolution in molecular biology that has begun to produce so many advances in medicine and other fields. His many honors attest to the extraordinary impact that his scientific work had upon genetics, virology, cancer research and other fields. Many of us will remember Dan best, however, for his humanity, and cherish the memory of him as a mentor, colleague and friend. It was an honor for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to have Daniel Nathans among its investigators since 1982."
--Purnell W. Choppin, president, Howard Hughes Medical Institute