Memorial Service


I fondly remembered Ira's and my first yeast meeting together at the Battelle center in Seattle in 1972. The meeting, "Genetic and Biochemical Control of Development in Yeast," was organized by Lee Hartwell and Herschel Roman and was attended by 60 or so people, about half of the entire yeast community at that time. In addition to Ira playing his guitar in the evenings, I distinctly remember that he asked questions after many of the talks. The questions were both for Ira to learn about what the speaker was trying to get across and for the speaker to learn what he/she was trying to get across. He always was the consummate teacher!

Besides missing his intellect and the great science that he produced, we will all miss his smile and the good words that he had to say about everyone. Thank you Ira for all that you did and for the influence that you will have for many years to come.

- Rodney Rothstein

Ira at Batelle yeast meeting, Seattle, 1972.

Many years ago, he wrote me because he was excited by my results showing the occurrence of positive controls (most genes of a prophage can be switched on by heteroimmune superinfection without lifting immunity). In view of his first name, Ira, I was also excited because I candidly imagined a gracious girl. So, I answered: 'Dear Miss Herskowitz'. He never put me right, and we went on exchanging letters between 'Dr Thomas' and 'Miss Herskowitz,' until I met him and was quite surprised to see his long and wide beard! Since then, I've had many opportunities to admire the scientist and appreciate the man.

- Rene Thomas, Universite Libre de Bruxelles, Chimie Physique, Belgique

I came to MIT as a graduate student in the fall of 1968. Ira was then in his second year of grad school. Two things stand out most clearly in my mind. Almost all of the first year students took Ethan Signer's course in Molecular Genetics. The readings from the literature were often demanding, especially those on lambda. Not surprisingly, Ira became a resource for those of us trying to understand those papers. Even at that early stage in his career, Ira already had the ability to explain and to teach with extraordinary clarity. Throughout his career, through his papers and seminars, he continued to teach us, repeatedly showing how complex but elegantly-designed experiments could harness genetics to reveal the answers to complicated scientific questions and to reveal fundamental cellular mechanisms. We have all been fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from him.

A friendly sort of rivalry existed between Harvard and MIT during the time Ira and I were in graduate school. It was sometimes the case in those days that students working at Harvard with Watson, Gilbert, or Ptashne would find themselves competing with one another. My recollection is that those students would sometimes come to Ira to discuss their experiments, insisting that he not tell others in their labs what they were discovering.

- Chuck Cole, Dartmouth University

I met with Ira once in a one-day symposium held at Harvard in the fall of 1999, for which he was one of the speakers. We met at lunch. I asked him if his lab still studied Ustilago maydis, other than yeast. He said yes, and asked me how I knew about this. I explained to him that I heard a talk given by his colleague, Flora Banuett, eight years ago, at a fungal genetics conference in Asilomar.

The most impressive part of the symposium was at the end of the day with his performance of country and folk songs, playing his guitar. Only later I learned that this was his trademark--science and music going side by side. It was a lot of fun to see him performing. Sadly, that was the only chance I had to see and listen to him. I will miss him.

- Hong Luo, Molecular Cardiology, The Cardiovascular Research Institute Texas A&M University College of Medicine

Ira in his UCSF office, 2003.

Ira was an outstanding teacher, both to me and, I hope, through me. He was first my teacher at MIT in the late 1960's where we were graduate students-- Ira was in Ethan Signer's lab studying the complex regulation of phage lambda gene expression, and I was in Boris Magasanik's lab studying the genetic control of histidine degradation in Salmonella. The genes encoding the enzymes were found to be between the gal and bio loci on the Salmonella chromosome (as was the lambda attachment site on the E. coli chromosome), and it was good luck that Ira was in the lab next door. I turned to him for instruction in the intricacies of lambda biology and genetics. As a master of the subject, he clearly and patiently taught me how to manipulate lambda, and soon I had the transducing phages that were a crucial part of my thesis. In addition he introduced me to the music that made the long hours of graduate research pleasurable.

After graduate school we went opposite directions on the globe, but met again when we both joined the faculty of the Institute of Molecular Biology at the University of Oregon. Ira had received a Research Career Development Award, leaving his courses to me to teach. But he didn't totally abandon them, for he taught me how to teach. Most memorable were his flowery diagrams--informative and accurate-- illustrating such diverse topics as chromosome segregation during sex cell formation and lambda gene regulation. I treasure his notebook for Bio487, Advanced Bacterial Genetics, that I inherited and used as I tried to continue the "Ira tradition" of teaching. Though the times and science have changed, his style remains a paradigm for effective teaching.

- Gerry Smith, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Ira and I were graduate students simultaneously studying phage biology. One day he told me that among the greatest influences on his development were those from his kindergarten teacher, and The Beatles. That reflection captures Ira's depth, joyfulness, attachment to music, and sense of humor. I miss him and all of those wonderful traits.

- Marlene Belfort

I met Ira and his family during junior high school. Ira and I got to know each other again when he came to Oregon to teach and I was living in Oregon. Ira was special in seeing and verbalizing the value and good of other people. When I told him my girlfriend had broken up with me, his reaction was not "I'm sorry," but "How could she have done that?" (incredulous tone). He told some people, while I was visiting him, that his brother and I were the fittest people he knew. I doubt that was true in my case, but he always accented the positive.

The last time that I saw him, a few weeks before he died, it was a typical visit. He could no longer play the guitar but we listened to the DVD of his Washington concert. After he rested for awhile, we watched an NCAA basketball game. The last thing he did was explain how yeast divides and drew me a diagram (I am not a scientist).

Ira was always the teacher and always asking questions. He invited me to his class at the University of Oregon because he would be singing Joel's "Double Talking Helix Blues." The class was in the afternoon and I was a bit sleepy so after he sang I sort of tuned the lecture out, until I heard him ask a question about the orientation of a molecule or something like that and then I heard "And Byron what's the answer?" Well it was like a jolt of adrenaline went through me. I answered correctly (50-50 chance) but it took awhile to forgive him.

- Byron Rendar



I knew Ira for more than 25 years, but most of my interactions and memories are from the late 1970s. At the time, Ira was a relatively new faculty member at Oregon, but was already a young star of molecular biology from his PhD work at MIT on bacteriophage lambda regulation. He had made the move to yeast, and each time I saw Ira there was a new exciting finding on mating-type interconversion. It was fun to watch the story unfold from a few strange genetic observations to a molecular mechanism. It was even more fun to hear the story from Ira, especially for anyone who likes how formal logic connects to real biology and likes to hear about it in an informal and humorous (and sharp-edged) fashion.

I met Ira at Gordon Conferences and Cold Spring Harbor yeast meetings, the first time when I was a second-year graduate student at Stanford. We had a lot in common and hit it off really well. Both of us had achieved scientific notoriety at a young age. We worked on the same floor at MIT (he as a graduate student, I as an undergraduate), although we didn't overlap for long and didn't meet. Both of us were working at the intersection of bacteriophage lambda and yeast. Ira was still working on certain aspects of lambda regulation, but was really applying lambda-type logic to the yeast mating-type studies. I was using lambda genetic tricks to clone yeast genes and carry out genetic analysis of their functions. We even had separate stints in the genetics of DNA polymerase I. We also liked Bob Dylan. We also had a shared interest in informal slides. One time driving back to New York from a Gordon Conference, I had dinner with Ira and his parents at their house. Ira was so enamored with my slides that he had me show them before dinner. I'd like to think that my major influence on his slide-making was the use of color.

So, in many ways, Ira was a role model during this time even though we saw each other only a few times a year. We had many long conversations about science, scientists, life, etc. There were late-night conversations at the bar at Holderness and Cold Spring Harbor, a memorable dinner at a Japanese restaurant in Boston that included Mark Ptashne (and my first encounter with sushi) several car trips from New Hampshire to New York, and I was at UCSF quite a bit when he was on sabbatical there. Ira was going to be the outside chair for my PhD thesis committee, traveling from Oregon, but couldn't make it at the last minute. He was only 5 years older than me, but 5 years is a long time at that stage (5 years later, I was a faculty member). He was a real influence on me at the beginning of my career.

A few stories: While renowned as a geneticist, Ira was less adept at biochemistry and molecular biology. There was the infamous sucrose gradient when he was a graduate student; I don't remember the details, but it wasn't a scientific or aesthetic success. There was his less-than-enthusiastic response to recombinant DNA technology. His comment about the first targeted gene deletion in yeast (by Stewart Scherer) was that the method was identical to homogenotization done by Lederberg in the 1950s. He was a reluctant convert to recombinant DNA technology, and at least initially, was somewhat threatened by it. He wrote an amazing tract (I can't seem to find it) on a recombinant DNA method for constructing double mutants (basically restriction digestion and ligation of two mutant DNAs). Highlights of this tract were the trivial nature of the method, the lack of scientific value of the experiment, the supplier (Big Bucks in Biology), the results section (which indicated that the experiment wasn't really done, but would certainly work), and the acknowledgment to "you know who" for suggesting that the method could be extended to triple and higher order mutant. Of course, Ira soon routinely used recombinant DNA technology; I remember sending him an award stating that he was a CloneMaster, First Class.

After the 1970s, Ira and I saw each other with diminishing frequency for all the usual reasons. Each time I saw him, however, it was great fun, if too brief. I last saw Ira about 2 years ago at UCSF and he told me about his latest results on the transcriptional response to osmotic stress. Perhaps not coincidentally, we were and are working in this area as well. I wish we could continue our conversation.

- Ken Stuhl

Ira circa 1996.

Ira grew up in University City Missouri, home of Washington University. He went to U. City High among a brilliant group of kids who played folk music, danced, wrote poetry, made movies, burned draft cards, and enjoyed the dreams and inspirations of the 60's. For budding scientists, the local tradition in biology was awe-inspiring, with role models like Kornberg, Berg, Levi-Montalcini, Hamburger, Sutherland, and Cori. Ira was a born scientist; he had no ambivalence about the direction of his work and proceeded through a series of mini-career changes that continued to turn up great new stuff. He had tremendous versatility and an instinct about things to come in biology; he was a witness to the continuing revolution, at times almost an evangelist--Brother Ira, somewhere between St. Francis and Woody Guthrie.

Over the next 35 years he visited several times, on numerous tours he took to see his dozens of friends. He could have a good conversation with anybody: there was always an enthusiastic connection, and always sincere respect. Even people of obscure pursuits, used to going unnoticed, would light up after a conference with the great man. I remember sitting on the roof with him in the early 70's where I was working on a house in upstate New York, playing guitars and getting the Word on how lambda brought gene regulation and development together. Then a short few years later it was yeast and mating type, and he would pull out his little spiral notebook and stubby pencil to scribble out that famous tree of activation and repression which seemed to make the mysteries of eukaryotic differentiation approachable for the first time.

For sure, Ira loved to show off--he explained that he and Joel had always been urged to perform--but it was always good-humored and generous: "OK, you play one" or "what are you up to?" He was as likely to brag about other people's work as about his own. His abiding enthusiasm was for the common endeavor of us all; that was the essence of his idealism, and he lived it. Projects in his lab where designed for export, and as often as not, left with the postdoc; he told me this is what kept him coming up with new things, and obviously it paid off. Those of us who mourn and remember our good friend can testify to his impact on our lives: how many of us there are who can ask where we would have been without him.

- Chuck Lowry

This is a 70's story about Ira. In the summer of 1973, I drove to Eugene OR, visiting Margaret Matson on my way from Leadville CO to Alaska. Through her I met Ira & Co. in the Institute of Molecular Biology. Ira put me, Margie's friend, up in his guest suite. Every morning, goal-oriented, determined not to let science swamp out his music, he sang and played some blues guitar and piano before going to work. I struggled to morph Midwest Casserole into Northwest Nouveau for dinner. In the evening Ira would write in his journal. Mara, his sister, visited from New York. Then Joel phoned and Ira gleefully passed the phone to me so I could hear his identical twin's identical voice.

A bunch of us drove up to Seattle to hear Bob Dylan and The Band. Ira took me along to an international yeast conference in San Francisco. Up on stage before a huge audience, a girl in jeans and a T-shirt bounced with excitement over her gene sequence. In the decade since college, I had forgotten the purity of joy possible in the Search for Truth; I decided to drive back to out-of-it Leadville, fetch my stuff, and move to Eugene. As I would pass through Salt Lake City at the height of the fruit harvest, Ira loaded me up with agar dishes to collect wild yeast samples from the fruit stands. (This indeed yielded one interesting mutant.)

I moved into my upstairs Eugene apartment one hot July day. The long-hair couple downstairs was very welcoming, offering me lots of iced tea and freshly-baked brownies. After half a dozen brownies, I began to feel exceedingly strange. Surprise! They were hash brownies, and I was going under FAST. I began randomly phoning people for help and the first person I reached was Ira. He came over at once. By the time he parked in front, I was blacking in and out of consciousness. His walk up the sidewalk took forever. I remember hearing him angrily chew out the couple downstairs for feeding me drugs, and for the next two days, I remember just one other thing: hearing music wafting from somewhere outside, struggling to walk out second-story windows toward the music -- while Ira held me back.

In a uniquely '70's version of "a gentleman never tells," Ira never would say anything about taking care of me those lost 48 hours. "That's part of what friends do," he said. Two days later, we had a tennis date. It was lame playing; the moving tennis balls threw psychedelic shadows at my racket. It also was Ira's - and Joel's - twenty-eighth birthday.

- Pat Lambert


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