U alumnus and winner of Nobel Prize dies at 86

Molly Moker

Edward B. Lewis, a University graduate and 1995 Nobel Prize recipient, died of prostate cancer July 21 at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, Calif. He was 86.

Lewis was best known for his studies of fruit fly genetics.

Robert Elde, dean of the College of Biological Science, said Lewis’ research found that fruit fly DNA is similar to human DNA.

“This shocked a lot of people, but how the genetic blue print is all laid out is hauntingly similar to humans,” he said. “We feel we’re so different than fruit flies, but the developmental plan is so similar.”

Understanding the construction of human bodies by building on Lewis’ research helped scientists study possible treatments for childhood cancer.

“The most profound contributions to the causes of childhood cancers have come from the studies of developmental genetics of fruit flies,” Elde said. “(Lewis) truly was the pioneer of these studies.”

Cancers that affect children are, for the most part, a defect in the developmental plan, Elde said.

He said he will never forget the first time he met Lewis in his office at the California Institute of Technology.

“He had a music stand in the middle of his cluttered office,” Elde said. “Instead of running or jogging, he practiced his flute every day for an hour.”

Jeff Simon, University associate professor of genetics, cell biology and development, refers to himself as a “scientific grandchild” of Lewis. He said he enjoyed Lewis’ demeanor as much as his scientific contributions.

“He worked in a very competitive field, but he always seemed to have a smile and focus mostly on the wonder of science,” Simon said. “It was more important to him to figure out how biological things worked rather than beat out the competition.”

Lewis was very fond of the University, Elde said.

“He was a very faithful alum and very proud of what he did at the ‘U’,” Elde said.

Lewis was born May 20, 1918, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He received a bachelor’s degree in biostatistics at the University in 1939 and earned his doctorate in genetics from the California Institute of Technology in 1942. He also received a master’s degree in meteorology there the following year.

Lewis stayed at the California Institute of Technology for the rest of his life, except for four years when he served as a meteorologist with the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.

He retired in 1988, but remained active in his lab until recently.

Lewis was a former president of the Genetics Society of America, which awarded him the Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal. Dr. Lewis was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In 1989, he was named a fellow of the Royal Society in England. He was also awarded the National Medal of Science in 1990.

In 1993, the University awarded Lewis an honorary doctorate of science degree.

He won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for his studies of how genes regulate the development of specific regions of the body.

“He was such an unassuming, small humble guy, there couldn’t be a sweeter person to win the prize,” Elde said. “He was always a person who was quiet, thoughtful and had that amazing twinkle in his eye.”

Lewis is survived by his wife of 57 years, Pam Lewis; and two sons, Keith Lewis of Redwood City, California, and Hugh Lewis of Bellingham, Washington.