Scientists who died during 2009

By Grant Jacobs 22/12/2009 has put up a list of famous people that died last ten years. Not one is a scientist.

Funny old world, eh? You can make the top ten NZers (never mind people world-wide) as a scientist, the obits in the paper, but not the famous who died in the last decade. What’s with that?

Below I have given a short list of some of those who have died this year. It’s biased to those I feel able to “nominate”. I don’t claim this to be definitive or even representative. One or two are people I’d know that most readers won’t; a couple won’t be well-known outside NZ, but others should be more widely known. The links are to obituaries. I’ve limited myself to the “hard” sciences.

If I were to extend this to ten years, to make a fair comparison to the list, we’d have include the likes of Francis Crick, Sir Fred Hoyle, Stephen Jay Gould, Max Perutz, Erwin Chargaff, Edsger Dijkstra, Martha Chase, Ernst Mayr, John Backus, Leslie Orgel, Arthur Kornberg, Edward Lorenz to name just a few that I’m familiar with. (Arthur C. Clarke inspired many would-be scientists, but I feel his achievements are in science fiction, not science.)

Here’s this year’s list (ordered by surname):

Sir Don Beaven, local medical science pioneer

Seddon Beddington, zoologist (and later anthropology and art history); director of Te Papa museum

Norman Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner for developing high-yielding crops to prevent famine in the developing world

Jean Dausset, doctor turned immunologist and Nobel Laureate for his work on the HLA (Human Leukocyte Antigen) system, the main basis of tissue compatibility.  (I would have to say that “only a French academic” would also run a Surrealist gallery!)

Warren L. DeLano, creator of PyMOL  (link is a PDF file)

Vitaly Ginzburg, physicist, “won the 2003 Nobel physics prize for developing the theory behind superconductors” (the write-up says he once said that interference under Putin was in some ways worse that under Stalin)

Ralph Hirschmann, first synthesis of an enzyme (ribonuclease), in parallel to an independent effort from Rockefeller University led by Merrifield who was awarded the Nobel Prize for this work).

Mahlon Hoagland, co-discoverer of transfer RNA

Ruth Kirschstein, pathologist and first woman director of the NIH

Sir John Maddox, editor of Nature

Brian Mason, “first to discover that a rock found in Antarctica came from the moon” (a NZer, although few probably will know him; I didn’t)

Frederic Richards, crystallographer.

Lester Shubin, developed Kevlar

Jacob Schwartz, mathematician and early computer scientist who became interested in molecular biology later in life. (I know him as the developer of the SETL programming language.)

Paul Zamecnik, a poineer of the in vitro synthesis of proteins, co-discoverer of transfer RNAs (His fellow co-discoverer, Hoagland, also died this year), and more recently involved in anti-sense gene control mechanisms and their application as medicinal therapeutics.