Mahlon Hoagland dies

Mahlon Hoagland, a molecular biologist whose discoveries of transfer RNA and the mechanisms behind amino acid activation helped build the foundation of genetics, died in his home in Thetford, VT, on Friday. He was 87 years old. Mahlon Hoagland Image: VACE As a young scientist in the 1950s and 1960s, Hoagland studied RNA and DNA alongside Paul Zamecnik at Harvard Medical School and Francis Crick at Cambridge University. He made his most significant contributions to biology in his 30s and largely

By | September 29, 2009

Mahlon Hoagland, a molecular biologist whose discoveries of transfer RNA and the mechanisms behind amino acid activation helped build the foundation of genetics, died in his home in Thetford, VT, on Friday. He was 87 years old.
Mahlon Hoagland
Image: VACE
As a young scientist in the 1950s and 1960s, Hoagland studied RNA and DNA alongside Paul Zamecnik at Harvard Medical School and Francis Crick at Cambridge University. He made his most significant contributions to biology in his 30s and largely dedicated the rest of his career to teaching, mentoring, and writing. According to several friends and colleagues, he was also a gifted artist. "Hoagland's early work opened up the field of biochemistry," said linkurl:Thoru Pederson,;http://www.umassmed.edu/bmp/faculty/pederson.cfm a molecular biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and a long-time colleague. "But beyond his research, his most notable asset was his effectiveness at communicating biomedical sciences to the general public through teaching and writing." Hoagland was born in 1921 and grew up in Southborough, Massachusetts. His father, Hudson Hoagland, was a prominent physiologist and cofounder of the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology. Eager to pick a career path that wouldn't put him in direct competition with his father, Hoagland studied biochemical sciences and pediatric surgery at Harvard University. During medical school, he joined the US Navy and served as a doctor in WWII. Hoagland also took time off while recovering from tuberculosis at Trudeau Sanatorium in Saranac Lake, NY, which he contracted from a baby he was treating. When he returned to Boston in 1947 to complete his MD, he realized he was too weak to continue his residency and switched to research, working in the Huntington Laboratories at Massachusetts General Hospital. In 1956, Hoagland, Zamecnik and Elizabeth Keller discovered the initial steps of protein synthesis -- amino acid activation by formation of aminoacyl adenylates from amino acids and ATP -- publishing their results in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Two years later, Hoagland and Zamecnik discovered transfer RNA, the adaptor that shuttles amino acids to messenger RNA. The presence of tRNA had been predicted by Crick a few years earlier, but Hoagland's study, also published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, was the first to prove its existence. Hoagland traveled to Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University in 1957 to work with Crick and Watson, using the newly discovered tRNA to try to unlock the genetic code. He returned to Harvard soon after and in 1967, he accepted a position as chair of the microbiology department at Dartmouth Medical School. Three years later, he left Dartmouth to take over his father's old position as director and president of the Worcester Foundation, strengthening the research institution's cell biology, endocrinology, neurobiology, and reproductive biology programs. In the 1970s, Hoagland led one of the first congressional delegations of researchers lobbying for government support for the advancement of science. "His leadership played a key role in facilitating the government's support for science," said linkurl:Alex Rich,;http://web.mit.edu/biology/www/facultyareas/facresearch/rich.html a molecular biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a long-time colleague. "He was lively, engaging. He could get anyone behind any cause." After 15 years at the Worcester Foundation, Hoagland retired to Thetford, VT, in 1985. During his career, he was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize and received the Franklin Medal for life sciences in 1976. He published 62 scientific papers, which have been cited more than 2,500 times, according to ISI Web of Knowledge. He also wrote six books on molecular biology for the general public, including The Way Life Works, and won American Medical Writers Book Awards in 1982 and 1996. According to friends and colleagues, Hoagland was a gifted wood sculptor, once creating a "beautiful wooden base for a wire model of tRNA" Rich had put together, the researcher said. The structure was on display in the Worcester Foundation before the institute merged with the University of Massachusetts Medical School. "On a personal level, Hoagland was ill-equipped for science," said Pederson. "He was plagued with self-doubt, although he has no reason to be; he made brilliant discoveries. But he loved teaching and working with his hands. He was quintessentially elegant and decent; a truly wonderful person." Hoagland suffered from kidney failure and heart problems. He died in his home after nine days of fasting under the care of his family, carrying out his wish to die naturally. He is survived by three children, five stepchildren, four grandchildren, two great grandchildren, and his ex-wife. Editor's note (September 30): This afternoon, linkurl:James Watson;http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1962/watson-bio.html returned a call we placed to him on Monday to give us his remembrances of Hoagland. "[His] science was world-class," Watson said. "He and Paul Zamecnik deserved to win the Nobel Prize for their fundamental work on tRNA... He was a very old fashioned New Englander, a true gentleman, who did beautiful experiments." Watson served as a member of Hoagland's 1977 Delegation for Basic Biomedical Research, which lobbied Congress for more support for the sciences.

Comments

Avatar of: PAUL STEIN

PAUL STEIN

Posts: 61

September 29, 2009

It sounds like he was the quintessential Renaissance man.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 125

September 29, 2009

In current world fraught with mediocrity in scientific substance but excellence in superficiality, he was truly a rare exception, regrettably. Even more missed will be his great humility bordering on self-doubt and genuine care for the science and science education of the general public.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

September 30, 2009

This piece captures Mahlon perfectly.\n\nAnd there is another facet of his life not mentioned here -- the fact that for the past 8 or 10 years, he tenderly cared for his second wife, Olley, who had Alzheimer's disease, until her death just a few months ago.\n\nHe will be much missed by those who knew him.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 4

September 30, 2009

\n"He died in his home after nine days of fasting under the care of his family, carrying out his wish to die naturally."\n\nThat's a wonderful way to go- at home, surrounded by loved ones. Is it allowed?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 9

October 1, 2009

Not so much because of the passing of the a great scientist but because we are forced to think of today's crop. I'm sorry to say but we have relegated great thinkers to a position of obscurity when compared to the bankers and MBA's and their ilk. Truly a sad day for us all.

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