Press Release

Cell biologist Richard Strohman has died at 82

| 17 July 2009

Richard Campbell Strohman, professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a frequent critic of the idea that genes determine destiny, died July 4 from complications of Alzheimer's disease.

Richard StrohmanRichard Strohman (Robert Holmgren photo)
The 82-year-old Strohman lived in Davis, Calif., but was staying with his daughter, Cathy Smith, in Sonoma when he was hospitalized. He died at Sonoma Valley Hospital.

Born May 5, 1927, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Strohman trained in biology at the Biophysical Labs at Columbia University, from which he obtained a B.S. (1952) and Ph.D. (1958). He joined the UC Berkeley zoology department in 1958 and for three years starting in 1973 he served as department chair. He changed the title on his office door from "chairman" to "chairperson," he explained to colleagues, out of respect for women's equality.

Strohman and his research colleagues made significant progress in understanding the development of skeletal muscle at the cellular and molecular level. This research contributed to knowledge regarding the developmental basis of muscular dystrophy, a group of diseases with varying severity for which there is no cure. In 1983 he co-edited with Stewart Wolf the book "Gene Expression In Muscle" (Plenum Press) and in 1990 he served as research director for the Muscular Dystrophy Association's international effort to combat genetic neuromuscular diseases.

He remained active after retirement in 1991, continuing to teach undergraduate and graduate courses dealing with the interface between biology and medicine and what he perceived as the growing crisis in theoretical biology, according to UC Berkeley colleague Malcolm Zaretsky. Strohman's view was that genetic determinism - that the most complex human diseases and behaviors can be reduced to purely genetic influence - was increasingly unable to contend with newer findings of biological complexity, necessitating a new and more comprehensive scientific theory of living systems.

He lectured frequently and wrote numerous papers dealing with the limits of genetic reductionism in biology and medicine, centering much of his criticism on the highly touted project to sequence the human genome, which was completed in 2003. Today, non-genetic, or epigenetic, factors are widely believed to play a major role in development and in human disease, according to long-time colleague Richard Veech, M.D., chief of the Laboratory of Metabolic Control in the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health.

"I think he was very far ahead of his time and ran against the grain in explaining the importance of epigenetic control," Veech said. "We had the genome and everything was going to be changed by that, but that clearly was not so."

Friend and colleague Harry Rubin, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology, said that "Dick would take a contrarian view about things in general, but I think he was correct in criticizing the idea that a few genes could explain the most important human diseases, such as cancer and heart disease, and could lead to treatments.

"All the wonderful things anticipated from genetics have not proved realistic. Human disease is much more complicated than we suspected, and Dick saw that and drew people's attention to that in what he wrote."

Strohman also authored papers in support of the views of colleague Peter Duesberg, who disputes the idea that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), and believes that abnormal chromosome numbers, or aneuploidy, is the cause of cancer.

Strohman's passion for innovation in cellular and genetic research paralleled his outspoken participation in movements for change on the UC Berkeley campus, Zaretsky said. He supported the Free Speech Movement in 1964, when students demonstrated for their constitutional right to express political views to end racial discrimination. He was a member of the Faculty Peace Committee which opposed the Vietnam war, and a member of the group Faculty for Social Responsibility, which, in the 1980s, promoted nuclear disarmament and opposed a U.S. military build-up and interventionist policies in Central America.

Strohman directed UC Berkeley's Health and Medical Sciences Program in 1976-79. With the general reorganization of the biological sciences in 1989, he joined the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology.

He was a member of the American Society of Cell Biology and the Society for Developmental Biology and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

He is survived by his daughters, Cathy Smith of Sonoma and Jennifer Strohman of Santa Monica, Calif., four grandchildren, and long-time companion, Mary Glasson of Davis, Calif.

A celebration of his life will take place at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club at a date to be announced.