Father of modern biotech

Daniel Nathans: Hopkins scientist found way to unlock genetic secrets of DNA double helix.

November 19, 1999

DANIEL NATHANS represented the very best of Johns Hopkins. A brilliant scientist who won a Nobel Prize, a quiet but effective leader who for two crucial years presided over the university and medical system, Dr. Nathans inspired students, researchers, professors and administrators.

This unflappable figure became a living legend on the Hopkins campus. It was richly deserved. He was, after all, the father of modern biotechnology.

Dr. Nathans found ways to use certain enzymes to unlock the genetic secrets of the DNA double helix. These "biochemical scissors" let researchers break apart and then rearrange the genes that shape human life. This process lies at the heart of today's stunning advances in genetic engineering and biotechnology. Dr. Nathans' work made possible such breakthroughs as synthetic insulin, growth hormones, interferon and the mapping of the human genome.

It was a singular achievement, one that led the Nobel selection committee in Stockholm to give its 1978 prize in medicine to Dr. Nathans, his Hopkins colleague, Dr. Hamilton O. Smith, and Dr. Werner Arber of Switzerland. But it was Dr. Nathans who had immediately grasped the importance of this work and devised methods for turning it into one of the basic tools of modern genetics research.

He played a bigger role than just a pioneering researcher. Dr. Nathans taught at Hopkins for 37 years, served as department chairman and stepped in when Hopkins needed him most -- as interim president in 1994 and 1995.

In that job, he surprised even his friends with his fund-raising skills. He succeeded in protecting the quality of medical treatment and research while bringing Hopkins more fully into an era of managed care.

His death Tuesday at age 71 is a loss not just for the Hopkins community and this city, but for medical science. Daniel Nathans was a giant in his field. His absence will be felt in research labs around the world.

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