Leader in Evolutionary Biology Dies
Lynn Margulis, creator of theory of symbiogenesis, taught at BU for 22 years| From Obituaries | By Cynthia K. Buccini
Lynn Margulis, at BU in 1982. Photo by BU Photography
Lynn Margulis, an internationally known evolutionary biologist whose theory of symbiogenesis changed the way scientists think about living earth systems, died on November 22, 2011. Margulis, who taught at BU for more than two decades before joining the faculty at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 1988, was 73.
Margulis was “one of the extraordinary thinkers and leaders in science,” says Douglas Zook, a School of Education associate professor of science education and global ecology. “Her ideas, research, and energy have changed the way we see life on Earth and crossed a variety of disciplines. Much of the groundbreaking discoveries she made, taught, and promoted were during her 20 years at Boston University. Her legacy is profound.”
Margulis, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of biology, was known for her theory of symbiogenesis, in which a “long-term symbiosis can lead to new organs, new tissues, new behaviors,” she explained in a 2006 interview with Astrobiology magazine. “Symbiogenesis is an evolutionary relationship. It’s symbiosis over time, such that a new feature can be recognized as a product of that symbiosis.”
“Lynn’s contributions to science and simply to new ways of thinking about the Earth and ourselves were extraordinary,” says Zook. “She resurrected ideas expressed 100 years earlier and long forgotten, namely, that important parts of our cells and that of most large organisms were once free-living bacteria. Her concepts were ridiculed and rejected by numerous science journals, but as was her nature since well before receiving her doctorate, she remained steadfast and appropriately defiant. Her theories on the importance of symbiosis—close partnerships between different life forms in nature—gradually gained acceptance and revolutionized our thinking about how life evolves and how the earth systems function.”
Margulis was born in Chicago and enrolled at the University of Chicago at age 14. She earned a master’s in genetics and zoology at the University of Wisconsin and a PhD in genetics at the University of California, Berkeley.
Elizabeth Godrick, who came to know Margulis as a BU graduate student, remembers her as a powerful advocate for women in science. “Lynn was extremely generous with her time,” says Godrick (GRS’70), now a CAS professor of biology, “always welcoming a question and loving a debate.”
Gail Patt, a CAS associate professor of biology, and her late husband, Donald Patt, were good friends with Margulis. “She and her children frequently joined our family on weekends for outings, hikes, and so forth,” says Patt, who describes Margulis as a devoted parent. “Our specific fields within biology were quite different, so we did not share research interests, or teach any courses together. But we supported her evolutionary creative ideas, and she gave us one of the first copies of her book right off the presses. It included a personal letter that I have always treasured.”
Zook says that in the classroom, in the lab, and in conversation, Margulis demonstrated a wide breadth of knowledge not only in biology and geology, but in history, poetry, art, and philosophy.
“Brilliant at every turn, she could learn a new language quite thoroughly in months,” he says. “She could quickly digest difficult science concepts and then be able to translate these for others.”
At UMass Amherst, Margulis was a Distinguished University Professor in Geosciences. She wrote hundreds of papers and many books on topics ranging from cell biology to microbial evolution.
Her most recent books include Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution (1998) and Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species (2002). The latter, and several others, was coauthored by Dorion Sagan, her son from her first marriage, to the late astronomer Carl Sagan.
Margulis was honored throughout her career. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1983 and received the National Medal of Science from President Bill Clinton in 1999. Among her other awards was the 2008 Darwin-Wallace Medal, awarded by the London-based Linnean Society for major advances in evolutionary biology. At UMass, she received the Chancellor’s Medal and the Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Research and Creative Activity in 2009. The Library of Congress announced in 1998 that it would permanently archive her papers.
She also lectured widely throughout the United States and abroad. She returned to BU many times to give special lectures.
Zook, who describes Margulis as a mentor, colleague, and friend, has been teaching her original graduate Symbiosis course at BU for more than 20 years.
“I feel so special to have known and been guided by her for more than three decades,” he says.