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Revolutionary University of Illinois biologist Carl R. Woese dies

Carl Woese University Illinois biologist

Carl Woese, University of Illinois biologist

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Updated: February 2, 2013 6:20AM

Renowned University of Illinois professor Carl R. Woese, who revolutionized biology with the discovery of a “third domain” of life, died Sunday at his home in Urbana after a seven-month battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 84.

Colleagues on Monday said Mr. Woese will be remembered as one of the most influential scientists in world history because of his contributions.

Mr. Woese and his colleagues wrote two papers published in 1977 that overturned a universally held assumption about the basic structure of the tree of life by adding a third primary division of life. They reported that the microbes now known as archaea (are-KEY-uh) were as distinct from bacteria as plants and animals. Scientists had previously lumped archaea together with bacteria.

Mr. Woese figured out the early form of evolution by studying the genetic codes, or sequences, of different types of cells. He developed a DNA fingerprinting technique to show his finding.

He recalled how the scientific community derided his finding. He was vindicated 19 years later after a research team confirmed his work.

Colleague Harris Lewin, vice chancellor for research at the University of California at Davis who was the founding director of the University of Illinois’ Institute for Genomic Biology, said Mr. Woese was called “the scarred revolutionary” in science magazines until Mr. Woese’s dismay over being spurned was softened by his 1992 Leeuwenhoek Medal award — microbiology’s premier honor from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Yet Mr. Woese retained his revolutionary nature: He shunned media attention; had no interest in obtaining patents or realizing financial gain from his work; wore khakis, plaid shirts and sneakers every day; enjoyed the music of jazz greats such as Miles Davis; read poetry to and with his wife, and walked to work each day from his modest on-campus home of 48 years, Lewin said.

“He was the most pure of scientists — committed to the creation and dissemination of knowledge,” Lewin said.

Another of Mr. Woese’s passions was reading about prominent scientists and thinkers throughout history and giving books about these luminaries to others. Six months ago, Mr. Woese gave Lewin a book about Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam, known for his work in computation, thermonuclear weapons and nuclear pulse propulsion.

Mr. Woese’s many awards included the $500,000 Crafoord Prize in Biosciences in 2003, considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for areas of science that fall outside of the main Nobel categories; a National Medal of Science award in 2000, and a MacArthur Foundation grant in 1984.

Gene E. Robinson, director of the Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois, said Mr. Woese would “sit back with his feet on his desk” and invite students and colleagues to talk about science.

“He had a strong sense of wanting to make sure students were getting a good education, were learning and were exposed to top-notch material and discussing the important issues in biology,” Robinson said.

Born July 15, 1928, in Syracuse, N.Y., Mr. Woese earned bachelor’s degrees in math and physics from Amherst College in 1950 and a Ph.D. in biophysics at Yale University in 1953. He studied medicine for two years at the University of Rochester, spent five years as a postdoctoral researcher in biophysics at Yale, and worked as a biophysicist at the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady, N.Y. He joined the faculty of the University of Illinois in 1964 as professor of microbiology and has served in that capacity ever since.

Colleague and physics professor Nigel Goldenfeld said, “Carl was the greatest evolutionary biologist of the 20th century — a true revolutionary.”

“Beginning as an outsider, he turned a field that was primarily subjective into an experimental science, with wide-ranging and practical implications for microbiology, ecology and even medicine that are still being worked out,” Goldenfeld said.

Mr. Woese is survived by his wife, Gabriella; and their children, Gabriella and Robert, both of Atlanta. The family plans a private service. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Carl R. Woese Research Fund, in care of The Institute for Genomic Biology, 1206 W. Gregory Drive, Urbana, Ill., 61801, or by emailing Melissa McKillip, the institute’s director of development, at or calling (217) 333-4619.

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