John Lowenstein (1926-2012)

Professor Gregory Petsko delivered the following tribute for John Lowenstein at Brandeis University Faculty Meeting late last year:

lowensteinJohn Lowenstein, who passed away from pancreatic cancer on November 3, 2012 at the age of 86, joined the Brandeis community in 1958 as a Senior Research Fellow, and became a member of the faculty two years later. From 1974-1995 he held the Helen Rubenstein Chair in Biochemistry; and he was also chair of the department in the 1990s.  John was not only a highly accomplished scientist; he was also an extraordinarily literate man, well versed in English, Russian and German literature, and a staunch devotee of opera, too. Even after his retirement in 2008, he continued to pursue his research interests and to work with students – he continued, in fact, to supervise an undergraduate until a few weeks before he died.

Those are the bare bones facts.  Let me tell you the story.  Many of you may know that John was one of the first members of the Biochemistry Department.  He came in the fall of 1958.  He’d been a Fellow at Oxford University, a position that allowed him a lot of independence, so when Mary Ellen Jones persuaded Nate Kaplan, the legendary founder of the department, to offer him a job, John already had the beginnings of a research program going.  He accepted the offer because America was, at that time, a better place for his wife, who was a clinician.  So he actually came here as an accompanying spouse (he once told me that he considered that a surprisingly liberated role for a man in the 1950s).  Before leaving England, he wrote to both the NIH and NSF to ask if it was OK for a foreigner to apply for a research grant; when they said it was, he wrote two different proposals, one to each of them.  He thought it was unethical to ask for salary on a grant, so he didn’t.  To his surprise, both grants were funded, so he ended up with full research support but no salary support.  Clearly, as we all know, Brandeis is a perfect choice for someone who wants to work without a salary!

Somebody then suggested he write a fellowship proposal, which he did, to the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation.  That was at the time, and still is, one of the most prestigious fellowships in the sciences.  Of course, he got that too, so when he finally showed up at Brandeis as, in essence, a postdoc, he had two grants and full salary support – more than most of the faculty!  Three weeks after he arrived, he started to lecture in Biochemistry on the 3rd floor of Kalman.  John once told me he was delighted that he was able to say that he had outlived that building!  Within 6 years of his arrivak, the Biochemistry Department was listed among the top 10 departments in the country, and it remained there until the mid-70s, when the practice of ranking departments stopped. 

After less than 2 years as a Whitney Fellow at Brandeis, John was already getting offers of faculty positions from other institutions for his work on nonenzymatic phosphate transfer by ATP, a very important process that he discovered.  Kaplan talked him out of considering most of them, but when one came from Tufts, Kaplan immediately promoted him to assistant professor.  By then, John had overcome his ethical objections to putting his salary on research grants…

purine nucleotide cycle

By the early 1970s, John had worked out the function of the important enzyme AMP-deaminase, the founding member of a family of enzymes that are very important in health and disease.  He then went on to do something only a handful of scientists have ever done: he discovered a metabolic pathway, the purine nucleotide cycle that AMP deaminase functions in.  This ought to be called the Lowenstein Cycle, but John once told me that if you discover something so important that you don’t have to name it after yourself, you’ve really done something special!

John always ran a small research lab but in many ways he ran the department for quite some time.  He had served on every possible departmental committee, popular and unpopular, sometimes all at the same time, or at least it seemed that way to him!  He was Chair of the Department in the early 1990s.  When I became chair of the department, a few years ago, I immediately sought out his advice.  He said, “Greg, my advice to you is to start drinking heavily.” 

He taught Biochem 101, the department’s signature graduate course, for many years, and then led the movement for the department to teach undergraduates.  Putting his money where his mouth was, he then taught the basic undergraduate course, Biochem 100 – sometimes two sections a day – until 2005. 

John had three sons; his middle son is a scientist at Johns Hopkins; the youngest is a professor of music, and his oldest is a businessman.  John was very, very proud of his family, but said to me on more than one occasion that the major place in his life, outside that family, was Brandeis.  It’s no accident that, for many years, John was the faculty member all the graduate students went to for advice.  He had a pilot’s license and used to fly sailplanes, but I think the students were quick to identify someone who was always good at keeping his feet on the ground. 

John once said that if he were independently wealthy he would still do what he does.  I was thrilled to hear that because it meant that, even after becoming emeritus, John would still be around a lot, and he was.  The best raconteur in the department, John had a warm, wise and often dryly funny story for every occasion.  It was part of the way he imparted his enormous common sense.  No one here meant more to me as a colleague, a friend, and a role model. He said to me that, when he retired, it meant the Biochemistry Department was going to gain in reputation, because he was going to have much more time for research… Few did it better, or with more style. 

On the occasion of his retirement, I asked John to sum up his years at Brandeis.  He just smiled and said, in his typical understated way, “I like to think I’ve been a cog in something worthwhile.”  We should all be such a cog!

Remembrances may be made to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee,

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