François Jacob, Geneticist Who Pointed to How Traits Are Inherited, Dies at 92
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Published: April 25, 2013
Dr. François Jacob, a French war hero whose combat wounds forced him to change his career paths from surgeon to scientist, a pursuit that led to a Nobel Prize in 1965 for his role in discovering how genes are regulated, died on April 19 in Paris. He was 92.
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The French government announced his death.
Dr. Jacob said he had been watching a dull movie with his wife, Lysiane, in 1958 when he began daydreaming and was struck with an idea of how genes might function. “I think I’ve just thought up something important,” he told her.
Seven years later, Dr. Jacob shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Dr. Jacques Monod and Dr. André Lwoff, his colleagues at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, for their discovery that cells can switch on and switch off certain genetic information. Their work, which focused on bacteria, increased understanding of how genes could be selectively deployed by an organism. “They’re all there in the egg. But how does the egg know when to turn from one type of cell type to another?” Richard Burian, a professor emeritus of philosophy and science studies at Virginia Tech, said of the question asked by Dr. Jacob and his colleagues. “There must be some kind of signal.”
Their discovery, considered central to the development of molecular biology, offered new insight into how people inherit traits, how they grow and develop, and how they contract and fight diseases.
“The discoveries have given a strong impetus to research in all domains of biology with far-reaching effects spreading out like ripples in the water,” Sven Gard, a member of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine, said when the three men were awarded the prize, according to the Nobel Web site. “Now that we know the nature of such mechanisms, we have the possibility of learning to master them.”
François Jacob was born on June 17, 1920, in Nancy, France. He had begun studying medicine when World War II began. France was occupied by Nazi Germany’s forces in 1940, and Dr. Jacob, whose grandfather had been a four-star general in the French Army, fled to England by boat in 1940 and joined the Free French Army led by Charles de Gaulle.
He worked as a medical officer and fought with Allied forces in North Africa and in France, where he was seriously wounded in a German air raid. He received numerous high military honors, including the Cross of War and the Cross of the Liberation.
Dr. Jacob returned to medical school after the war, completing his studies in 1947, but damage to his hands from his combat wounds prevented him from becoming a surgeon. At a loss for what career to pursue, he was encouraged to try research and, though he had little training in it, he found a place at the Pasteur Institute in 1950. (He earned a doctorate in science at the Sorbonne in 1954.)
Working with other scientists at Pasteur, he quickly distinguished himself by identifying how bacteria adapt to drugs and bacterial viruses. It was a time of great discoveries in genetics. In 1953, James D. Watson and Francis Crick published their groundbreaking work on the double helix structure of DNA. At the Pasteur Institute, Dr. Jacob began working with Dr. Monod, and they soon had a breakthrough of their own. By means of a series of innovative experiments, they established that the transfer of genetic information could be controlled through two different types of genes, regulatory genes and structural genes, with the former controlling the expression of the latter.
“What mattered more than the answers were the questions and how they were formulated,” Dr. Jacob later wrote. “For in the best of cases, the answer led to more questions. It was a system for concocting expectation, a machine for making the future. For me, this world of questions and the provisional, this chase after an answer that was always put off to the next day, all that was euphoric. I lived in the future.”
Dr. Jacob expanded his research into other areas, including how cancer grows and spreads. He also waded into a debate about genetic superiority that arose when the Nobel-winning physicist William B. Shockley, who argued that race and heredity are important to intelligence, was among four Nobel laureates who contributed to a sperm bank intended to produce gifted children through artificial insemination. Dr. Jacob was amused at the notion, and he considered it misguided.
“For the group, as well as for the species, what gives an individual his genetic value is not the quality of his genes,” he wrote in Le Monde in 1980 in an article that later appeared in The New York Times. “It is the fact that he does not have the same collection of genes as anyone else. It is the fact that he is unique. The success of the human species is due notably to its biological diversity. Its potential lies in this diversity.”
Dr. Jacob became laboratory director at the Pasteur Institute in 1956 and four years later was appointed head of its new department of cell genetics. In 1964, he joined the Collège de France, where a chair of cell genetics was created for him.
Dr. Jacob married Lysiane Bloch, known as Lise, a pianist, in 1947. They had four children. After her death, he married Geneviève Barrier in 1999. Information about survivors was unavailable.
Dr. Jacob’s inquiries included matters moral and philosophical as well as cellular. He once wrote that he wanted to discover “the core of life.”
“What intrigues me in my life is: How did I come to be what I am?” he wrote in his 1988 autobiography, “The Statue Within.” “How did this person develop, this I whom I rediscover each morning and to whom I must accommodate myself to the end?”