UC Berkeley News
Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

Biologist Gunther Stent has died at 84

– Gunther Siegmund Stent, a refugee from Nazi Germany who helped lay the foundations for the field of molecular biology in the latter half of the 20th century, died June 12 of pneumonia at his home in Haverford, Pa. He was 84.

A professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, Stent was among the handful of scientists who after World War II pioneered the discipline of molecular biology, a field that essentially reduced biology to the study of chemical and physical interactions in and between cells.

Gunther Stent'
Gunther Stent
Along with James Watson and Francis Crick, he was part of the original "phage group," an informal club of scientists who tackled the mysteries of DNA and the gene in the 1950s and '60s. Watson and Crick later won the Nobel Prize for discovery of the structure of DNA.

"Gunther was part of the intellectual glue that kept this small band of pioneers together," said Michael Botchan, co-chair and professor in UC Berkeley's Department of Molecular and Cell Biology.

A polymath, Stent was known not only for his studies on the metabolism of bacteria and neurobiology of leeches, but also for his writing on the history and philosophy of biology. For many years, he taught a freshman seminar on consciousness, and he wrote a 2002 book, "Paradoxes of Free Will," that won the 2002 John F. Lewis Award of the American Philosophical Society. He also published books on morality as a biological phenomenon, prematurity in science and the end of biology.

From his arrival at UC Berkeley in 1952, he helped reshape the study of biology on campus through the formation of the Department of Virology in 1957, the Department of Molecular Biology in 1964 and the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology in 1987. He chaired two of these departments, molecular biology from 1980 to 1986 and the enlarged molecular and cell biology from its founding in 1987 until 1992. He also directed the virus laboratory.

When he became "bored with molecular biology," in the words of his wife, Mary Burgwin Ulam, Stent switched to neurobiology, using the leech as a model to understand the neural connections and circuitry underlying its behavior - in particular, swimming. While he helped establish the leech as a model organism in the analysis of behavior, he also took what he learned to spin theories about how the nervous system works.

"One of his most-cited papers was a proposed model for how learning takes place at the synapses of nerve cells," said neurobiologist David Weisblat, a former postdoctoral fellow with Stent who now is a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology. While that 1973 paper still influences researchers, Stent's other theories often went by the wayside.

"Gunther was famous for being wrong about stuff," Weisblat added. "He loved ideas, whether they were right or wrong, as long as they led to discussion and new ideas or experiments."

Like his friend, Francis Crick, Stent eventually shifted his focus to the study of the mind/body problem - that is, how our subjective experience of the world can be derived from basic brain physiology.

"He was always interested in the philosophical underpinnings of science, and for the last 20 years of his life he was most interested in the nature of consciousness and how the activity of the nervous system is related to mental experience, the mind/body problem," said colleague David Presti, a senior lecturer in neurobiology at UC Berkeley. He noted that Stent was pessimistic that anyone could solve the problem, because Crick himself failed in the attempt.

Stent continued his investigations after his retirement in 1994, until illness forced him and his wife to pack up and move to a retirement home in Pennsylvania in the fall of 2007.

Born Günter Siegmund Stensch on March 28, 1924, in Berlin, he was a self-hating Jew who longed to join the Nazi party, according to his 1999 self-published autobiography, "Nazis, Women and Molecular Biology: Memoirs of a Lucky Self-Hater." He escaped Germany in 1938 to join his sister in Chicago, changed his name to Gunther Stent, and enrolled in the University of Illinois, from which he obtained his bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1945. In 1946, he returned briefly to occupied Germany to screen technical documents for the military.

Graduating with a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Illinois in 1948, he received a fellowship to study with Max Delbrück at Caltech, whose lab was one of the centers of the new field of molecular biology and focused on the genetics of bacteriophage, a virus that attacks bacteria. There, he worked alongside Watson before Watson's move to Cambridge University, where he and Crick had their famous collaboration.

Stent moved to UC Berkeley in 1952 as an assistant research biochemist and conducted experiments with radiolabeled bacteriophage that confirmed the structure of DNA a mere year after Watson and Crick reported it in 1953. Stent joined the faculty in 1956, became a full professor in 1959 and served for one year as a unique "professor of arts and sciences" in 1967.

Stent's work on bacteriophage led to one of his most influential books, the 1963 "Molecular Biology of Bacterial Viruses," which "became the most exciting tool for the study of molecular genetics following the finding of the double helix," Watson was quoted as saying in a June 16 New York Times obituary for Stent. The book was later updated with UC Berkeley colleague Richard Calendar, professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology.

In 1980, Stent edited the book "The Double Helix: a Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA," which was a reissue, with commentary by Stent, of Watson's famous account of the discovery of DNA's structure.

Stent also authored "Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology" with Watson and John Cairns (1966, 1992).

In 1969, he also published his 1967 and '68 lectures on the end of biology as the book " The Coming of the Golden Age: A View of the End of Progress." The book's thesis, that scientists had learned all there was to know about biology, came only a few years before the discovery of recombinant DNA and an explosion of new work that gave birth to the biotechnology industry.

Many of Stent's friends, including Watson, 2002 Nobel Laureate Sydney Brenner and neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, gathered in 2005 at UC Berkeley to celebrate Stent's 80th birthday and to remember his contributions to science, art and philosophy.

At the time, UC Berkeley colleague John Searle, the Willis S. and Marion Slusser Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language, noted that "Gunther is one of the leading intellectuals of the era - one of the last generalists. He is a Renaissance man."

Stent was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.

Stent is survived by his second wife, Mary Ulam, of Haverford, Pa.; a son, Stefan Stent, of Washington, D.C.; and two stepsons, Alexander Ulam and Joseph Ulam. His first wife, Inga Loftsdottir Stent, died in 1993.