Boris Magasanik, 94; pioneer in molecular biology at MIT

March 10, 2014 | Students

By J.M. Lawrence

February 2, 2014

A pioneering scientist in the emerging field of molecular biology, Boris Magasanik made key discoveries and spent 50 years teaching generations of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students about the secrets of tiny cells.

In a Viennese accent born of his early life in Austria, Dr. Magasanik delivered lectures in the conversational voice of a storyteller.

He never used notes and usually sat on the edge of a table with his legs dangling. He made complex science so inviting, colleagues said, that one undergrad quipped in an evaluation that his course should be called, “Uncle Boris’s Enzyme Stories.”

“Boris was a great teacher,” said Edward Scolnick, a former student and a past president of Merck Research Laboratories. “He was great one-on-one, and he was a great lecturer. He was just so logical and clear. It was a joy listening to him. His brilliance was his ability to teach and get students to think.”

Dr. Magasanik, who was the Jacques Monod professor emeritus of microbiology, died Dec. 25 at his Cambridge home.

He was 94 and had aortic stenosis, according to his wife, Helen Donis-Keller.

Drawn away from his post at Harvard in 1960 by microbiologist Salvador Luria, who later would be awarded a Nobel Prize, Dr. Magasanik was a pioneer in the study of gene regulation and was recognized for discoveries involving nitrogen metabolism.

He chaired MIT’s biology department from 1967 to 1977 and taught at Harvard Medical School in the 1950s.

MIT leaders credit him with helping establish the institute at the front of what was then a new field. Under Dr. Magasanik’s tenure, the biology division almost doubled in size and drew top scientists from around the world.

“He trained many future leaders in the new science of molecular biology in the country,” said Maurice Fox, an MIT geneticist and professor emeritus.

“He was a gentleman in the classic sense. He was scholarly, he was brilliant and he was helpful.”

Dr. Magasanik was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, in 1919.

Two years after the Russian Revolution his family fled to Vienna. He was studying chemistry at the University of Vienna in 1938 when Germany annexed Austria and the Nazis forced Jews to leave universities.

He then immigrated to the United States to live in New York City with his older sister’s family.

The siblings’ father, Naum, who was a Talmudic scholar, and their mother, the former Charlotte Schreiber, then followed.

Dr. Magasanik continued his studies on scholarship at City College of New York while working as a medical technician to help support his parents, according to his wife. Graduating in 1941, he was drafted and served in an Army medical unit in England and France during World War II.

After the war, Dr. Magasanik graduated from Columbia University in 1948 with a doctorate and joined the faculty at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Magasanik was married 41 years to Adele Karp, who was also a scientist. She died of cancer in 1991. They met as students in New York and were longtime residents of Newton, where they filled their home with art, including a major collection of African art, friends said.

In 1996, Dr. Magasanik married Donis-Keller, a scientist and an artist, whom he met while they were serving on the Board of Tutors at Harvard.

“He was a very popular adviser,” she said, recalling Dr. Magasanik’s devotion to helping students with studying and obtaining letters of recommendation.

Throughout his life, Dr. Magasanik also enjoyed attending opera and studying history. He could expound on the details of the Crimean War as easily as he could talk about his discoveries in nitrogen regulation, friends said.

“He was a true intellectual,” said Donis-Keller, a professor of art and biology at Olin College of Engineering in Needham.

Moselio Schaechter, a microbiologist and Tufts professor emeritus, said in a blog post that Dr. Magasanik’s greatest legacy is his students, writing that “he was a rare exper- imenter and thinker and his willingness to teach was unmatched.”

“Boris was equally at home discussing either science or history and literature, or all of them at the same time,” Schaechter wrote.

“I remember once noticing that he was having a heated discussion with Salvador Luria, another polymath. Hoping to gather some pearl of scientific wisdom, I slinked near them enough to hear what they were saying. They were having an argument about the historical role of some prince of Savoy!”

In addition to his wife, Dr. Magasanik leaves a stepdaughter, Christine Donis-Keller; and two grandchildren.

A memorial service for him is planned for June 1 at MIT.

A member of organizations including the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Magasanik received the American Society for Microbiology’s Abbott-ASM Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. He was the author of nearly 250 publications on microbial physiology and the regulation of gene expression in bacteria and yeast.

MIT professor Lisa Steiner, who in 1967 was the first woman to join the biology faculty, recalled that Dr. Magasanik was an unflappable leader and a kind adviser.

“He was a very gentle person. I never saw him flustered no matter what happened,” she said.

Steiner, who also escaped Hitler’s annexation of Austria as a child, said she and Dr. Magasanik had a shared heritage. “I could even lapse into Viennese slang with him,” she said.

In an informal talk videotaped at MIT in 2007, Dr. Magasanik fielded questions from students who wanted to know how he mapped his career.

“It was not a plan,” he said. “It was one thing leading into another.”

He advised students to choose work they were passionate about, or if they had little passion, they should opt for trying to make a lot of money.

“I can see either one,” he said.

“When you don’t like what you’re doing every day to earn the money, I think it is a bad life.”

Alan Grossman, an MIT biology professor who taught an undergraduate course with Dr. Magasanik until 2003, said he had an easy rapport with students.

“He just loved interacting with students,” Grossman said. “He had a very gentle way about him that students weren’t threatened and felt comfortable. It was remarkable.”

Originally published by The Boston Globe