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Cell biologist Daniel Mazia dies at 83
STANFORD -- Daniel Mazia, a biologist who shaped the way scientists understand the workings of the cell, died June 9 in Monterey, Calif., of heart failure and complications of cancer. He was 83. A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. Sunday, June 30, at Hopkins Marine Station.
Mazia was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the recipient of a number of national and international scientific awards. He had just completed a term as president of the International Cell Research Organization of UNESCO.
As professor emeritus of biological sciences at Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, Mazia was still active, teaching at Hopkins and in UNESCO seminars worldwide, and conducting research on how structures in the cell are shaped and organized. That research capped a career of more than 60 years that included ground-breaking discoveries in the 1950s about mitosis, the process of doubling and dividing chromosomes so that the instructions for life can be passed on to a new cell.
His influence on cell biology goes beyond the long list of discoveries from his laboratory, colleagues and former students said.
"His real contribution was the influence he had on other people," said Richard Steinhardt, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California-Berkeley, who collaborated with Mazia on several research projects. "His insights inspired several generations of students. He had a way of looking at cell biology that went beyond the current preconceptions to fundamental issues. He could see things that no one else could see clearly, and he inspired others to do the same."
Gerald Schatten, a former student and now professor of zoology, molecular biology and obstetrics/gynecology at the University of Wisconsin, said that "it's impossible to separate Professor Mazia from the entire fabric of cell biology.
"His discoveries, his thinking are interwoven in all aspects of cell division, cell structure, cell regulation. He played a major role in defining the terms that we use now in understanding how the nucleus and chromosomes change in the cell cycle in fact, he came up with the terms 'cell cycle' and 'life history of the cell.' "
David Epel, Mazia's former student at UC-Berkeley and his colleague as a professor at Hopkins Marine Station, said that Mazia "never looked at anything conventionally. He always had different ways of looking at the same problem." Epel said this characteristic made Mazia a great teacher, capable of inspiring an undergraduate to test new ideas and a trained scientist to re-test old ones.
"He spoke like literature," Epel said. "It was not just a transmission of facts; it was stimulating. He spoke to ideas and images in his listener's mind, so a student and a senior investigator could listen to the same lecture and gain something different. It was like a reverie you would come away with your mind abuzz with new ideas."
Epel said Mazia was often ahead of his time, willing to test theories that would not be taken up by others until years later, when technology made the research easier. "Even as a graduate student [at the University of Pennsylvania, studying with calcium ion pioneer L.V. Heilbrunn], Mazia's early work on the role of calcium in fertilization was ahead of its time," Epel said.
Mazia is best known for the mitosis studies. With Japanese biologist Katsuma Dan, he isolated the mitotic apparatus the structure responsible for cell division in 1951. This laid the groundwork for much of the future research in that field, Epel said.
Other studies ranged from one of the early experiments on the role of DNA in chromosomes to work in the '80s and '90s on the centrosome, an enigmatic organelle that organizes the structure of the cell. Epel said that Mazia stimulated a whole field of research on centrosomes and his idea about their role "may turn out to be one of the most important principles of the biology of the cell."
"He was identified with many scientific fields, but he worked on one broad and unified theme: the reproduction of the cell, which Mazia himself defined as 'the problem of the origin of twoness,' " Epel said.
Mazia was born Dec. 18, 1912, in Scranton, Pa., and raised in Philadelphia. His daughter, Judith Mazia, said the death from cancer of a close friend in college spurred him to study the fundamental processes that go awry when cancer cells divide wildly. "That was not a field that had a lot of career potential in the 1930s. His parents worried [that choice] was not normal when you go to West Philadelphia High and your mom and dad run a corner grocery store during the Depression. They said, 'My son's going to grow up to be a cell biologist?' "
He attended the University of Pennsylvania, earning his bachelor's degree in 1933 and his doctorate in 1937. In 1937-38 he was a National Research Council Fellow at Princeton University and at the Marine Biological Laboratories in Woods Hole, Mass. He continued his association with Woods Hole as a teacher and trustee for many years.
He married the former Gertrude Greenblatt in 1938, and they had two daughters, Judith and Rebecca. Gertrude Mazia died in 1990.
Mazia was assistant and associate professor of zoology at the University of Missouri from 1938 to 1950, with time out for service in World War II. In 1951, he joined the faculty at UC-Berkeley, and was professor of zoology there until his retirement in 1979. He was recruited by the late Colin Pittendrigh, director of Hopkins Marine Station, as a Stanford professor of biological sciences. According to Schatten, the opportunity to continue teaching and research "started a new boyhood for him."
Schatten said that through his collaborations with scientific colleagues and his work teaching seminars for UNESCO, Mazia was known around the world. "Everyone wanted to claim him for their own," Schatten said. Though Mazia's heritage is Russian Jewish, Schatten once saw an Italian television commentator refer to him as "that famous Italian scientist."
In Monterey, Mazia was joined by Ruth Gilbert, a photographer and a friend since their college days. "Their home became more or less a social center for artists as well as scientists, and Ruth was the catalyst for those gatherings," said Steinhardt.
Mazia is survived by Gilbert; his brother, Joseph Mazia of Chevy Chase, Md.; daughters Rebecca Mazia of Olympia, Wash., and Judith Mazia of Piedmont, Calif; son-in-law Alan Wofsy; and step-granddaughter Elizabeth Snowden, both of Piedmont.
The family requests that donations in Mazia's memory be sent to the Miller Library Fund at Hopkins Marine Station.
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