Conscience of Hopkins and Nobel laureate dies

Biologist probed secrets of DNA, was university leader

Daniel Nathans, 1928 - 1999

November 17, 1999|By David Folkenflik and Douglas Birch | David Folkenflik and Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

Dr. Daniel Nathans, the brilliant and reticent Nobel Prize-winning scientist who was regarded by many of his peers as the conscience of the Johns Hopkins University, died yesterday of leukemia at his home. He was 71.

Proud and passionate about ideas, Dr. Nathans helped Hopkins sustain its sense of tradition during a time that brought wrenching changes to academic medical centers. In addition to teaching and conducting research, Dr. Nathans served the university as a valued adviser and interim president.

"He was the wise man of the medical center and he was seen that way," said former Hopkins Medical Dean Michael M. E. Johns, now chancellor for health affairs at Emory University in Atlanta. "He walked quietly but carried the responsibility of the respect he had very, very thoughtfully."

Dr. William R. Brody, president of the Johns Hopkins University, said: "Dan Nathans was an extraordinary human being. He was brilliant, of course. ... 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."

Colleagues described Dr. Nathans as a man who taught by example and by encouragement, and as a researcher of vision and intellectual vigor.

"The great scientist can separate the wheat from the chaff. One of the great things in research is to know what questions to ask, what subjects to focus on," said Dr. Solomon H. Snyder, the director of Hopkins' neuroscience department. "He would ask the very best questions."

The Nobel Prize

Dr. Nathans shared the 1978 Nobel Prize in medicine with a Hopkins hallmate, Dr. Hamilton O. Smith, and Swiss scientist Dr. Werner Arber for discovering the first tools for understanding and manipulating DNA, the frail chain of chemicals that holds the recipe for creation.

"It's fair to say we are all standing on Dan Nathans' shoulders and are continuing to do so," said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda. "The work that he did in the 1970s made it possible for us to dream the dreams that we do now."

Dr. Nathans' work helped launch the biotechnology revolution, with its promise of significantly advancing the power of medical science to understand, treat and cure disease. Yet he was skeptical of another outgrowth of his work, the increasing commercialism of biological research.

Along with Drs. Snyder, Victor A. McKusick, and a handful of others, Dr. Nathans was frequently named when outsiders would ask who best personifies the values of Hopkins. When trustees were startled by the resignation of university President William C. Richardson in 1994, they turned to Dr. Nathans to lead the campus until they found a replacement.

Despite his prominence, Dr. Nathans disdained the dinner jacket circuit, preferring a walk around his Mount Washington neighborhood in a well-worn sweater or playing with grandchildren in his den. When he entertained friends, it was usually for a quiet dinner with classical music playing in the background. Discussions typically revolved around molecular biology or national politics.

Dr. Nathans and his wife, Joanne, a lawyer who worked on legislative research at Baltimore City Hall, created a nurturing home where intellectual curiosity was highly valued. Their eldest son, Eli, is a lawyer completing a doctorate in European history; Dr. Jeremy Nathans, like his father, is a molecular biologist at Hopkins; and Benjamin Nathans is a professor of European history at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Nathans "was not one to discuss the weather or other trivial things," said Dr. Smith. "He didn't go for just light gossip. Virtually everything he said had some thought behind it." Dr. Smith would sometimes tease Dr. Nathans about his serious manner, telling him that he would make a great president.

While Dr. Nathans served on national boards, including an advisory panel to President George Bush, he preferred working in his lab. He continued his research even after he began treatment for cancer, diagnosed in 1997.

The early years

Daniel Nathans was born Oct. 30, 1928, in Wilmington, Del., the last of eight children of Samuel and Sarah Levitan Nathans, both immigrant Russian Jews. Mr. Nathans ran a five-and-dime store in Wilmington and lost it during the Depression, but the family managed to scrape by.

"Our house was cold and leaky, and (I learned later) my parents sometimes went hungry," Dr. Nathans wrote in an autobiographical statement for the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. "Yet they generally managed to retain their good humor and certainly their hopes for their children."

From the age of 10, Dan Nathans worked at jobs after school and on weekends to help his family financially. He followed his brothers and sisters to the University of Delaware in nearby Newark.

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