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Robert T. Simpson, International Science Leader, Dies at 65

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28 April 2004 -- Robert T. Simpson, 65, of Lemont, Pennsylvania, died on Wednesday, 21 April 2004, after a fall at home.

He was born on 28 June 1938 in Chicago, Illinois, to William L. and Evelyn Berg Simpson.

Dr. Simpson was an international leader for over 35 years in research on chromatin, a fundamental component of chromosomes, and its role in gene regulation. His addition to the Penn State faculty, as the Verne M. Willaman Professor of Molecular Biology in 1995, is considered to have placed Penn State and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the forefront of chromatin research and to have greatly enhanced Penn State's research and educational missions.

Simpson's research, published in over 120 papers, established numerous precedents in the discovery of important structure/function relationships in chromatin proteins. His early biochemical and biophysical studies of chromatin structure and composition were landmark papers that are now regularly cited in published articles, up to two decades later. His work established many of the crucial parameters for the structure of nucleosomes, chromosomal subunits, and the functions of certain proteins within these structures. During the early 1990s, Simpson's laboratory used yeast genetics to further explore chromatin function, resulting in what has been called "the first and best evidence of the role of nucleosome-positioning in the regulation of gene transcription and DNA replication in vivo."

Dr. Simpson is recognized as an outstanding mentor and teacher. His numerous former graduate students and postdoctoral trainees also have made significant impacts on chromatin research, an accomplishment he was particularly proud of. During his time at Penn State, hundreds of undergraduate students have benefited from his teachings in molecular medicine. His depth and breadth of knowledge were inspiring. He had the refreshing capacity to articulate the essential points of complex issues in clear and concise terms.

He received his B.A. with high honors as a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Swarthmore College in 1959. He was an Alpha Omega Alpha graduate of Harvard Medical School, from which he received an M.D. degree (cum laude) in 1963. He earned a Ph.D. degree in Biological Chemistry at Harvard University in 1969, after which he joined the United States Public Health Service. He was an active researcher at the National Institutes of Health from 1969 until he came to Penn State in 1995. He had been a laboratory chief at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. During this period, he also was co-chairman of the Department of Biochemistry of the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences.

While at the National Institutes of Health, he was a member of the Director's Reviewers Reserve and served as a member of the Molecular Cytology Study Section; the president of the National Institute of Arthritis, Diabetes, Digestive, and Kidney Disease Assembly of Scientists; a member and the chair of the National Institutes of Health Biosafety Committee; and a member of the Board of Directors of the Foundation for Advanced Education in Science. His efforts were recognized by the United States Public Health Service with a Commendation Award in 1982, the Meritorious Service Award in 1991, and the Distinguished Service Award in 1995. He retired from the Public Health Service with the rank of Captain in 1995.

He was a frequent and regular presenter of invited talks at international meetings and university seminars. He served on the editorial board of both the Journal of Biological Chemistry and Nucleic Acids Research , and was a former Executive Editor of Nucleic Acids Research.

Dr. Simpson is remembered as being more than just the list of his professional accomplishments. Family, friends, and students have expressed many fond memories of Dr. Simpson, including their appreciation of his keen memory and his storytelling skills, through which he expressed his warmth, humor, compassion, and appreciation of life. Many have noted that he was a family man first and foremost. His wife, four children, and home were primary in his life, and their memories include his camping with children, baking bread, using his extensive cookbook collection to whip up a wonderful meal for his family and friends, and entertaining using Swedish themes.

His style of living showed characteristics of simplicity, diversity, pacifism, fiscal responsibility, and loyalty. He supported underrepresented individuals involved in science. He was generous in allowing others to proceed on their own and did not himself take credit for their accomplishments. His love of creative projects produced many beautiful articles, especially in wood. He had a strong sense of environmental responsibility. He was an avid wrestling fan, and enjoyed sailing and fishing. He owned and cared for an historic Chesapeake drake tail boat, which he later donated to an area museum.

He is survived by his wife Katherine Rupkey Simpson, of State College, and four sons: Todd Andrew of Reston, Virginia; William Robert and his wife, Maggie Hallam, of Fairbanks, Alaska; Michael Scott and his wife, Linda, of Silver Spring, Maryland; and Brian David of Kensington, Maryland. He also is survived by four grandchildren, Nicholas, Lucas, Benjamin and Ameilia, and a sister, Karen Kuehl, of Chevy Chase, Maryland.

A Memorial Service will be held at 1:00 p.m. on 12 May 2004 at the Eisenhower Chapel on the Penn State University Park Campus.

In recognition of Dr. Simpson's interests in science, education, and the environment, contributions may be made to the Robert T. Simpson Memorial Fund, c/o the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 108 Althouse Laboratory, University Park, PA 16802; to the Swarthmore College Scholarship Fund, 500 College Avenue, Suite 270, Swarthmore, PA 19081; or to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, 6 Herndon Avenue, Annapolis, MD 21403.

[ N J / B K K ]


NOTE: The following obituary appeared in the journal Molecular Cell and is reprinted here with permission. To view a PDF, click here .

Robert T. Simpson (1938–2004)

The field of chromatin research lost one of its longstanding and respected members recently, Robert T. Simpson. Bob died suddenly in late April after a fall in his home near the Penn State University campus. Bob began his scientific career just as the modern era of molecular biology was maturing. He graduated from Swarthmore College in 1959 with high honors, Phi Beta Kappa. He completed his M.D. at Harvard in 1963, graduating cum laude with Alpha Omega Alpha honors, and received his Ph.D. in Biological Chemistry from Harvard in 1969. Bob joined the Public Health Service and took a position at the National Institutes of Health that same year. He remained at the NIH throughout most of his career, rising to the rank of Lab Chief at the Laboratory of Cell and Developmental Biology. In 1995 he joined the faculty at Penn State as the Verne Williman Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Bob made seminal contributions to the resurgence of chromatin research in the 1980s. The nucleosome concept had emerged in the early 70s, but most molecular biologists at the time still viewed chromatin as simply a means to package the very large DNA content in eukaryotic cells. In a series of elegant papers, Bob demonstrated several important properties of chromatin structure. He showed that nucleosomes containing H1 manifested a unique nuclease digestion product and coined the term “chromatosome” to distinguish nucleosomes that contain histone H1 from nucleosomes that contained only the core histones. In a 1983 PNAS paper with D. Stafford, Bob demonstrated that Lytechinus variegatus 5S DNA would support deposition of a nucleosome in a specific position. This finding contravened the prevailing opinion that nucleosomes were unlikely to occupy unique positions on DNA and provided the basis for the subsequent discoveries of positioning in other systems. Bob went on to exploit this finding in developing the famous “5S array” of positioned nucleosomes ( Cell , 1985). This system has been widely exploited by many investigators as an in vitro model of higher-order chromatin structure. The 5S system reflects three fundamental features that characterized Bob’s work throughout his career: simplicity, cleverness, and the integration of structure and activity. In more recent years, he studied the importance of nucleosome positioning in the regulation of transcription and was in the process of devising methods to define in vivo chromatin structures on a genomic scale.

In addition to his significant research contributions, Bob provided extensive service to the scientific community. He was regularly involved in NIH study section reviews and was a leader in the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Intramural Program. He served on the editorial board of the Journal of Biological Chemistry and was an executive editor of Nucleic Acids Research. After moving to Penn State, he took on a leadership role in both the undergraduate and graduate training programs and was active in mentoring junior faculty in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Bob was a quiet person, and his reserve was something of a trademark. However, anyone who spent time with him quickly realized that his quiet ways were balanced with a keen wit and a wonderful sense of humor. Bob was also known for his ability to “cut to the chase”in any discussion, whether it be a faculty meeting, a study section meeting, or a lab meeting. He managed to say in a few well-chosen words what others might not convey in a half-hour speech.

One of Bob’s greatest enjoyments was the achievements of his students and post-docs. He was a legend at the NIH because he encouraged his post-docs to pursue independent research and to publish on their own. His policy, very unusual in today’s competitive environment, was to only put his name on papers to which he felt he made a real intellectual or “hands-on” contribution. He was generous with his time, his talents, and his resources, and he considered the success of those he mentored as a great reward itself.

Although he directed an active and widely recognized research program, Bob managed to fit in a rich and active life outside of science. He took special pride in his family at home and his family in the lab. He enjoyed camping, fishing, and sailing with his family, and spent many hours on the Chesapeake in his historic draketail boat. He loved to cook and to share his latest experiment in the kitchen, and he and his wife Kathy opened their home for many a celebration. Bob’s work will continue in the labs of the many fellows and students who developed their skills under his direction. He will be remembered for his high standards, his sharp intellect, his attention to careful and well designed experiments, and above all his dedication to the development and success of those who passed through his lab.

Sharon Roth Dent Gordon L. Hager
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center
Houston, Texas 77030
Laboratory of Receptor Biology
and Gene Expression
National Cancer Institute
National Institutes of Health
Bethesda, Maryland 20892
syr@mdacc.tmc.edu hagerg@exchange. nih.gov

Molecular Cell , Vol. 15, 3–4, July 2, 2004, Copyright •2004 by Cell Press

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