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Obituary
Morgan Harris

17 March 2005

Eminent biologist and rugged outdoorsman Morgan Harris, professor emeritus of zoology and former chair of the Department of Zoology, died Feb. 14 of pneumonia at Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center. Harris, a resident of Kensington, Calif., was 88.


In addition to earning distinction as a scientist, Morgan Harris contributed much to the development of modern mountaineering (as seen above right, with frequent climbing partner David Brower, on the cover of a Sierra Club guidebook).
Harris was a noted experimentalist in cell biology and cancer research, though much of his work went against the late-20th-century notion that the secret to life lies in our genes. While other researchers were churning out "genes of the month," according to colleague Richard C. Strohman, professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology, Harris was pursuing experiments that showed that genes were not as important as what controls the genes, what turns them on and off.

Today, cell and molecular biology is undergoing a revolution as scientists concentrate more on the regulatory apparatus in the cell. Areas such as proteomics and bioinformatics focus on the complexity of interactions within the cell and among genes, not just the genes themselves.

Much of Harris' work in cell culture explored the influence of the environment on the behavior of cells, and he was one of the first to recognize the phenomenon of epigenetic inheritance of traits - that is, inheritance of traits not encoded as a mutation in the genes. He noted this specifically about the biological mechanisms of drug resistance. His last paper, in 1995, reported experiments showing that the history of cells in culture affects their response to drugs.

"Morgan showed that you can produce long-term changes in the behavior of cells not only by causing mutations, which are changes in the sequence of nucleotides in DNA, but by changing molecules that are bound to DNA and which modify genes," said Harry Rubin, professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology. "These changes affect whether or not a gene is active, but they are not genetic, they are epigenetic."

His findings have been verified in many fields of science, including neurobiology, the area of research being pursued by Harris' sons. His elder son, Roger Harris, is a professor of biological structure and teaches neuroanatomy at the University of Washington, while Ronald Harris-Warrick is a professor and chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University.

Beyond the academy, Harris greatly loved the outdoors. As a teenager he joined the Sierra Club, where he learned about rock climbing with ropes - a technique mostly used in Europe at the time. He was among the first to try it in California in the 1930s, and was a pioneer of roped rock climbing in Yosemite Valley. In 1936 he was part of a team that climbed Royal Arches, employing for the first time the pendulum traverse (the use of a rope to swing from point to point).

He and his frequent climbing partner David Brower made the first ascent of Cathedral Chimney in 1936 and together established 11 routes in Yosemite Valley. In all, Harris achieved 14 first ascents in Yosemite Valley, including the "Rotten Log" route on Royal Arches. He also established the "Shaky Leg Crack" route on the east face of Mt. Whitney, California's highest peak.

In 1981, Harris was selected to serve on a national committee to prepare a master plan for the future of Yosemite National Park that resulted in many improvements in his beloved valley. Although he eventually gave up rock climbing, he continued to ski, hike, and backpack, and became a passionate birdwatcher. He accumulated a "life list" of almost 2,500 species.

Harris was born in St. Anthony, Idaho, on May 25, 1916, but grew up in Oakland. During his high-school days he nurtured his love of nature by forming a birdwatching club with his classmates. Members of that group continue to meet annually.

Harris received his B.A. and Ph.D. from Berkeley. In 1945 he became a professor of zoology on the campus, a position he held until his retirement in 1981, and served as chair of the department from 1957 to 1968. He developed a campus laboratory for tissue culture and was president of the national Tissue Culture Association. His 1964 book, Cell Culture and Somatic Variation, is an unparalleled classic of the field, Rubin said.

After his retirement, he continued to publish science articles into the late 1990s and to work in his campus laboratory.

Harris is survived by his wife, Lola, of Kensington, and sons, Roger of Seattle and Ronald of Ithaca, N.Y. His first wife, Marjorie, died in 1985. He is also survived by four grandchildren.

The family requests that, in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to the Golden Gate Chapter of the Audubon Society, 2530 San Pablo Ave., Suite G, Berkeley, CA 94702-2047. A celebration of his life will be announced at a future date.

-Robert Sanders