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Stanley Falkow

Stanley Falkow, microbe hunter, dies at 84

Renowned microbe enthusiast Stanley Falkow has died at 84. Falkow was known for his generosity, wit and remarkable scientific acumen that led to the founding of the modern field of bacterial pathogenicity — the study of how bacteria cause human disease.

When my phone rang last Sunday morning as I was lining up for the annual Bloomsday Run in Spokane, Washington, my already anxious pulse quickened. A glance at the caller ID told me my editor was trying to reach me — never a good sign early on a weekend morning. I knew something had happened.

The starting gun fired before I could answer the call, but I listened to the voice mail as I jogged slowly along (lest I lead you astray about my physical prowess, I should point out that my 'race' pace is more of a gentle trot, and I was nervously hoping just to be able to finish the 12 K race without keeling over) and tried to absorb the sad news that Stanley Falkow, PhD, had died. My heart sank.

Although I met Falkow in person only once in 2008 after our office had learned he would receive the Lasker Koshland Award, I had spoken with him by phone when he was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2015 and I know many of his former students and colleagues. He was a true gentleman and a fantastic scientist who deserved every accolade. Now I would be writing his obituary.

I used the next seven miles to think about Falkow and his contributions to science. As I subsequently wrote:

During his career, Falkow identified the mechanisms by which antibiotic resistance spreads. He played a key role in the development of DNA cloning and served on a committee organized to assess the safety of recombinant DNA technology. Later in his career, he observed the dawn of large-scale DNA sequencing and immediately realized its potential to help him accomplish one of his fondest wishes: to identify the genetic changes that rendered usually harmless bacteria potentially deadly to their human hosts.

Falkow’s research helped uncover the molecular causes of human diseases as varied as diarrheal disease, plague, food poisoning, whooping cough, ulcers and cat scratch fever. But, although his findings are directly applicable to human health, he arrived at his discoveries by approaching scientific problems from the viewpoint of the bacteria he found so endlessly fascinating.

My musings helped me forget the anxiety I had felt about my own capabilities to complete the run, my longest to date this year. What I didn't know at the time was that Falkow also struggled with anxiety, which at one time was so severe it threatened to derail his career. As I learned:

In 1955, Falkow started graduate school at the University of Michigan, but recurrent panic attacks soon caused him to drop out and return to his hospital job. Although he successfully completed graduate school and then postdoctoral studies — first at Brown University and subsequently at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research — his ongoing anxiety and developing agoraphobia, about which he spoke freely, colored his early professional life.

He described 'living [his] life both scientifically and personally in a kind of cocoon, always half-afraid and ready at a moment’s notice to run.' A colleague at the hospital taught him how to fly fish in an attempt to alleviate his anxiety, sparking a lifelong love.

I hope you take the time to read about how Falkow (mostly) overcame his condition and went on to mentor over 100 graduate students and postdoctoral scholars during his career — all of whom invariably described to me his incredible generosity and humility. When I finished the run, sweaty and gasping, I felt a sense of accomplishment. But I was also filled with a sense of purpose and responsibility as I began the work of describing the life of this remarkable man. It was such a privilege to write.

As David Relman, PhD, a friend, colleague and former postdoctoral scholar in Falkow's laboratory explained:

Stanley was one of these rare people who truly did live for and embody the joy of science. For him, science was never a struggle. It was fun every moment along the way. And he showed that in his smile, in the lilt in his speech and even in the way he constructed his sentences. ‘What a great question,’ he’d say. Or ‘I wonder why this might be?’ He loved science for the beauty of it, for the intrigue, for the fun.

Photo by Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

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