Philip Filner, molecular biologist

Former professor and scientist worked at Becton Dickinson and helped preserve a wooded Owings Mills tract

  • Phil Filner
Phil Filner (Baltimore Sun )
September 13, 2014|By Jacques Kelly | The Baltimore Sun

Philip Filner, a retired molecular biologist and community activist who helped preserve a wooded and wetland tract in Owings Mills, died of pancreatic cancer Sept. 6 at his Lutherville home. He was 75.

Born in Philadelphia, he was the son of Samuel Filner, an artist and illustrator, and Lily Cohen Filner, a homemaker. He was raised in Queens, N.Y., and was a 1956 graduate of Stuyvesant High School. As a young man, he delivered meats for a kosher butcher and worked as a city parks recreation worker and a darkroom assistant for a photographer.

He earned a biophysics degree from the Johns Hopkins University and a doctorate in biochemistry from the California Institute of Technology.

He then joined the faculty of Michigan State University's biochemistry department and was a founding faculty member of its plant research laboratory. He had sabbatical posts at the National Institutes of Health and the anatomy department at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark before resigning from Michigan State in 1981.

Dr. Filner then went into private scientific research. He settled in Danville, Calif., and became the associate director for the ARCO Plant Cell Research Lab in nearby Dublin, Calif. He was later director of molecular biology for Sungene Technologies in San Jose. He then worked in animal and plant breeding at Correlation Genetics and on tests for human infectious diseases for Roche Molecular Systems in Alameda.

In 1992, he moved to Owings Mills after he joined Becton Dickinson, where he worked with bioscientists and engineers to automate tests for tuberculosis based on DNA studies. He retired in 1996.

"My dad loved his family, his friends, teaching, learning, a good argument, telling stories and listening to C-SPAN radio," said his son, Ethan Samuel Filner, a violist who lives in San Francisco. "He also followed politics closely because 'What better to argue with than political news?'"

Dr. Filner was the author of nearly 60 peer-reviewed scientific papers. He also worked on grant and advisory committees of the National Science Foundation, the Departments of Agriculture and Energy, and NASA. He also served on scientific journals' editorial boards.

While living in Owings Mills, he took up the cause of preserving a wooded and wetland tract between Reisterstown Road, Old Tollgate Road and South Tollgate Road.

"He was steadfast in his beliefs. He knew the ins and outs of government. He could be confrontational when he thought he was right," said David S. Fuller, who lives in the Tollgate section. "We identified the individual trees and made trails and informational signs. One of the trails, 'Phil's path to the pond,' is named for him."

Dr. Filner became involved in the Tollgate Action Group and later persuaded county officials and developers to create the Tollgate Wyndham Preserve.

"He liked seeing the natural beauty. He didn't like things prettified. He also enjoyed watching things growing over time," his son said. "He was always interested in the Earth. He had the utmost respect for Mother Nature at the molecular level. He understood how the pieces fit together."

Dr. Filner volunteered at Northwestern High School in Baltimore, where he oversaw a renovation of a rooftop greenhouse after winning an IKEA grant competition. He worked pro bono for six years as director of basic science research for the nonprofit Macular Degeneration Foundation.

"My father spent a big chunk of his retirement researching his Jewish roots and compiling interviews with lots of relatives for an extensive family tree," said his son. "He had weekly meetings with Aaron Prero, a friend, to discuss Jewish topics. These talks were intensely interesting, inspiring, eye-opening and invigorating for my father."

Dr. Filner moved to Lutherville in 2007.

In addition to his son, survivors include two other sons, Daniel Baer Filner of Wellington, New Zealand, and David Howard Filner of Naples, Fla.; and four grandchildren. His marriage of nearly 40 years to Diana Kay Ice Filner ended in 2007 in divorce.

Services were held Monday at Sol Levinson and Bros.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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