17 July 2008
Gunther Siegmund Stent, a refugee from Nazi Germany who helped lay the foundations for the field of molecular biology in the latter half of the 20th century, died June 12 of pneumonia at his home in Haverford, Pa. The Berkeley professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology was 84.
Stent was among the handful of scientists who after World War II pioneered the discipline of molecular biology, a field that essentially reduced biology to the study of chemical and physical interactions in and between cells.
Along with James Watson and Francis Crick, he was part of the original “phage group,” an informal club of scientists who tackled the mysteries of DNA and the gene in the 1950s and ’60s. Watson and Crick later won the Nobel Prize for discovery of the structure of DNA.
A polymath, Stent was known not only for his studies on the metabolism of bacteria and neurobiology of leeches but for his writing on the history and philosophy of biology. For many years he taught a freshman seminar on consciousness, and he wrote a 2002 book, Paradoxes of Free Will, that won the 2002 John F. Lewis Award of the American Philosophical Society. He also published books on morality as a biological phenomenon, prematurity in science, and the end of biology.
From his arrival at Berkeley in 1952, he helped reshape the study of biology on campus through the formation of the Department of Virology in 1957, the Department of Molecular Biology in 1964, and the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology in 1987. He chaired the latter two departments consecutively, and also directed the virus laboratory.
In addition to his work in molecular biology, Stent made contributions to neurobiology, helping to establish the leech as a model organism in the analysis of behavior. Like his friend Francis Crick, he eventually shifted his focus to the study of the mind/body problem — that is, how our subjective experience of the world can be derived from basic brain physiology. He continued his investigations after his retirement in 1994, until illness forced him and his wife to move to a retirement home in Pennsylvania in the fall of 2007.
Born Günter Siegmund Stensch in 1924 Berlin, Stent was a self-hating Jew who longed to join the Nazi party, according to his 1999 self-published autobiography, Nazis, Women and Molecular Biology: Memoirs of a Lucky Self-Hater. He escaped Germany in 1938 to join his sister in Chicago, changed his name to Gunther Stent, and enrolled in the University of Illinois, from which he obtained his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1945. In 1946 he returned briefly to occupied Germany to screen technical documents for the military.
Graduating with a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Illinois in 1948, Stent received a fellowship to study at Caltech, one of the centers of the new field of molecular biology. Moving to Berkeley in 1952 as an assistant research biochemist, he conducted experiments with radio-labeled bacteriophage that confirmed the structure of DNA a mere year after Watson and Crick reported it in 1953. Stent joined the Berkeley faculty in 1956, became a full professor in 1959, and served for one year as a unique “professor of arts and sciences” in 1967.
Stent’s work on bacteriophage led to one of his most influential books, 1963’s Molecular Biology of Bacterial Viruses, later updated with Berkeley colleague Richard Calendar, professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology.
In 1980, Stent edited The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, a reissue, with commentary by Stent, of Watson’s famous account of the discovery of DNA’s structure.
Stent also authored Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology with Watson and John Cairns (1966, 1992).
In 1969 he published his 1967 and ’68 lectures on the end of biology as The Coming of the Golden Age: A View of the End of Progress. The book’s thesis, that scientists had learned all there was to know about biology, was developed there only a few years before the discovery of recombinant DNA and an explosion of new work that gave birth to the biotechnology industry.
Stent was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. He is survived by his second wife, Mary Ulam, of Haverford, Pa.; a son, Stefan Stent, of Washington, D.C.; and two stepsons, Alexander Ulam and Joseph Ulam. His first wife, Inga Loftsdottir Stent, died in 1993.
— Robert Sanders