Scientist Ushered in New Biology Field

Photo: Gunther Stent
Gunther Stent

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Renowned molecular biologist and UC Berkeley professor emeritus Gunther Stent died of pneumonia near his Pennsylvania home on June 12. He was 84.

Stent is recognized as one of the founders of molecular biology, whose work proved the findings of James Watson and Francis Crick, molecular biologists who won the Nobel Prize for their discovery of the structure of DNA.

"Every history of science has to give Gunther personal credit as one of the inventors of molecular biology. He's one of the half dozen (inventors)," said John Searle, UC Berkeley Slusser Professor of Philosophy and one of Stent's colleagues.

Stent became an associate professor at UC Berkeley in 1952, two years before he published his significant findings validating Watson and Crick's structure of DNA. He chaired the department of molecular biology in 1964 and later chaired the department of molecular and cell biology from its founding in 1987 until 1992.

"It was funny because he was always busy with his research and trying to avoid the administration, and then they asked him to chair the new department. He made an excellent chairman. Polite but firm, very kind, very honest, you always knew just where he stood," said Richard Calendar, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology.

Calendar met Stent while he was completing his graduate studies at Stanford University, where Stent presented a seminar-Calendar said he did not believe a word of it at first.

"But then, as a third-year grad student, I read his book on the molecular biology of sciences, and it was the most wonderful book I'd ever read. Since then I've always tried for all my writing and teaching to be like that," he said.

Stent is also widely recognized for his book, "Molecular Biology of Bacterial Viruses," which was published in 1963 and later updated with Calendar's help.

"He would squint at my first drafts, grumble and mumble, and come back with something brilliant," Calendar said.

The revised book, "Molecular Genetics: An Introductory Narrative," sold about 25,000 copies in English and was later translated into Italian, Japanese, Spanish and Russian.

Stent also published "Nazis, Women and Molecular Biology: Memoirs of a Lucky Self-Hater" in 1999, an autobiography on his youth as a Jew in Nazi Germany before relocating to Chicago in 1938. He also authored "Paradoxes of Free Will" in 2002, which won the 2002 John F. Lewis Award of the American Philosophical Society and reflects his interest in the philosophy of biology.

"He was more philosophically inclined than most biologists and scientists. He found one of the deep aims of science is to give greater philosophical understanding," said Searle, who publicly debated Stent on the subject of free will and the brain.


Contact Hadas Goshen at [email protected]

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