Former Jackson Lab Director Ken Paigen Dies
Former Jackson Lab Director Ken Paigen Dies

Former Jackson Lab Director Ken Paigen Dies

The geneticist’s long career included leading the laboratory’s recovery from a devastating 1989 fire.

Shawna Williams
Shawna Williams
Feb 20, 2020

ABOVE: THE JACKSON LABORATORY

Kenneth Paigen, a geneticist who served as director of the Jackson Laboratory from 1989–2003, died on Saturday (February 15), the lab announced. He was 92 years old and conducted research until just a few months ago.

“For 30 years, the name Ken Paigen was synonymous with the @jacksonlab,” writes Jackson Laboratory professor Steve Munger on Twitter. “He was a constant source of inspiration, and I was lucky to call him a mentor and friend.”

Paigen was born in 1927 in the Bronx, according to a 2013 profile in the Jackson Laboratory magazine. He attended the Bronx High School of Science, followed by Johns Hopkins University. His father, a dentist, wanted Paigen to become a doctor, but it was not to be. “When I started college I didn’t know there was such a thing as a Ph.D.,” he says in the article. “In my senior year we got a new professor who taught a course in cellular physiology (which nowadays would be called cell biology). I fell in love with it, and I found out you could actually become a scientist. Much to my father's distress, I got accepted as a graduate student at Caltech.”

Paigen’s first faculty job was at Roswell Park Memorial Institute (now Roswell Park Cancer Institute), where he worked for 27 years, eventually becoming the head of the molecular biology department. He and his wife, Beverly Paigen, also a geneticist, then moved to the University of California, Berkeley, for seven years.

According to the Bangor Daily News, Paigen published 148 papers in the course of his career. His earlier research investigated the molecular mechanisms of gene regulation, while his later work focused on hotspots in the human and mouse genomes where recombination is frequent.

Near the end of his time at Berkeley, Paigen accepted an offer to direct the Jackson Laboratory in Maine. He hadn’t yet assumed the position and was on his way back to the airport after visiting the laboratory in May 1989 when, according to the profile, he found a note waiting for him at the airport rental car desk that read, “The Lab is on fire.” Instead of boarding his flight to California, Paigen returned to the facility. As he neared it, he recalled, “I could see an enormous plume of smoke. It looked like a volcano. And when I got to the Lab there was chaos.”

“It was a hell of a way to begin a new job,” he told The Scientist the following month. Paigen not only aided in the laboratory’s recovery efforts from the event, which killed approximately 350,000 mice and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage, he also lobbied Congress for funds to expand the lab. The number of laboratory staff more than doubled during his time as director.

After stepping down as director in 2003, Paigen stayed at the laboratory and continued his research. According to the profile, some of his recent work focused on the protein PRDM9, which facilitates DNA recombination during meiosis.

Colleagues of Paigen tell the Mount Desert Islander that he was a “scientist’s scientist” who asked excellent questions. “They were questions that would leave the rest of us thinking, ‘Why didn’t we think of that? It’s just so right,’” Mary Ann Handel, a member of his research group, tells the newspaper.

Paigen was an early advocate for mapping the human genome, the Islander notes. “He was constantly ahead of the curve scientifically and thinking to the next decade’s important problems, how and where to move with new technologies, how they can answer critical questions,” Handel says.

The Daily News reports that Paigen is survived by Beverly, their five children, 12 grandchildren, and a great-grandchild. 

Shawna Williams is a senior editor at The Scientist. Email her at swilliams@the-scientist.com or follow her on Twitter @coloradan.