Special Tribute: Thomas Steitz (1940–2018)

Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry

Related imageThomas Steitz, faculty member at Yale since 1970, was often referred to as the foremost structural biologist of his age. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009 along with Venkatraman (Venki) Ramakrishnan and Ada Yonath for studies on the structure and function of the ribosome, the protein-making factory key to the function of all life. All three used X-ray crystallography to map the position for each and every single one of the hundreds of thousands of atoms that make up the ribosome. While the work began as a quest to answer basic questions about the makeup of the ribosome, knowledge of its structure has created targets for a new generation of antibiotics.

Steitz’s youth might not have suggested such a course. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one of five children, he spent the summers of his youth on a family farm, bunching radishes and weeding acres of onions. He owed his career to a series of lucky accidents and opportunities: the shop courses in his high school which taught him about the basic skills in working with tools and materials; the accident of hearing about Lawrence College from his best friend and attending a place which he insisted changed his life, where he found small classes and a great mentor; a summer between junior and senior year spent in a special MIT program for selected students from small colleges (where he met Donald Engelman); his attendance as a graduate student at a lecture by Max Perutz, whose three-dimensional stereo slides galvanized him and led him to seek a place in the lab of his Harvard mentor William Lipscomb; and finally the three years he spent in the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge, where he worked determining the structure of chymotrypsin complexes with substrates.

Wherever he was, Tom insisted on the importance of community as vital to his work. At Cambridge he believed the most important feature of his lab was the canteen where researchers gathered as many as three times a day for coffee, lunch, and tea to discuss and sort out scientific problems. He came to Yale instead of Berkeley because Yale had arranged to hire his equally powerful scientist wife Joan on the professorial ladder; and while at Yale he continued to benefit from the shared computation and X-ray laboratory and the many interactions it facilitated and later from what was informally known as the WERMS Group—the laboratories of Professors Wyckoff, Engelman, Richards, Moore, and Steitz (and later Paul Sigler, Axel Brünger, and Jennifer Doudna). He would often suggest that their interactions were of utmost importance to him as a scientist. Peter Moore was his Yale colleague in his research on the ribosome, and no one would insist on the importance of Professor Moore’s contribution more than Steitz himself.

Tom was a multi-talented person. As a youth he was a good enough saxophonist to win medals and consider a career in music. Along with Joan, their son Jon, and other friends, he hiked and skied. In the Branford home he loved, he gardened and took delight in living in view of the ocean. He was not a great classroom lecturer, but there are multiple ways to be a fine teacher— and he was that, as a P.I. for the multitude of accomplished graduate students and postdocs who passed through his lab. But if there is a single theme to his work, or lesson to be taken from it, it may be about the power of community: “Outstanding discoveries, insights and developments do not happen in a vacuum,” he said in his Nobel biographical statement. “Our research accomplishments on the structures of the large ribosomal subunit and its many complexes were greatly enhanced and accelerated by the structural biology environment at Yale in the 1990s as well as the long-term support of risky projects by the Howard Hughes Medical Research Institute. As I watch increasing numbers of my faculty colleagues, students and postdocs communicate with each other almost exclusively by email rather than discussing ideas over the lunch table … I wonder whether they will be as creative and have as much fun doing science as they could with more face-to-face contact.”