Colleagues and friends mourn death of pioneering geneticists
Couple was married for 54 years; David Perkins widely credited with establishing orange mold as model experimental organism
David D. Perkins, who conducted pioneering genetic research at Stanford University for nearly six decades, died Jan. 2 at Stanford Hospital after a brief illness. He was 87. Four days later, his wife and scientific collaborator, Dorothy "Dot" Newmeyer Perkins, died of natural causes at their home in Menlo Park, Calif., at age 84. They were married for 54 years.
"The tragedy of David and Dot both passing so close together underscores their devotion for each other," said David Jacobson and Namboori Raju, senior research scientists in David Perkins' Stanford lab, in a statement posted on the Perkins lab website. "They were truly partners in everything: life, love, work and now death."
David Perkins is widely credited for establishing the orange mold Neurospora crassa as a model experimental organism for genetic, cellular and population research. During his 58-year career on the biological sciences faculty at Stanford, he and his co-workers published more than 300 scientific articles, reviews and book chapters. He also nurtured many early and present-day Neurospora researchers around the globe.
Geneticist Dorothy Perkins was a close collaborator with her husband from 1951 until her retirement in 1988. She authored 30 scientific articles during her career under the name D. L. Newmeyer.
"David and Dot had the rare combination of integrity, kindness, diligence and modesty," said Maja Bojko, a postdoctoral fellow in the Perkins lab from 1985 to 1988—one of dozens of friends and collaborators whose comments also have been posted on the website. "They have been an inspiration not only to be a better scientist but to be a better person."
David Dexter Perkins was born May 2, 1919, in Watertown, N.Y., to Dexter and Loretta Perkins. He earned a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Rochester in 1941, then served as an intelligence officer in the Army Air Force in England. After World War II, he obtained a doctoral degree in zoology (genetics) at Columbia University.
Perkins joined the biological sciences faculty at Stanford in 1948 and continued to conduct research and advise scientists until his death. He became professor emeritus in 1989, when university policy mandated his retirement at age 70, but was immediately recalled to active duty that year.
Dorothy Lorraine Newmeyer was born May 28, 1922, in Philadelphia to Forrest and Lillian Newmeyer. She aspired to be a research scientist, but because there were few opportunities for women researchers, she trained instead as a pharmacist and earned a bachelor's degree with high honors from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science in 1943. After a "boring stint" as a drug factory chemist, Newmeyer became a graduate student of future Nobel laureate Edward L. Tatum at Yale University, where she earned a master's degree in botany-microbial genetics in 1948.
When Tatum returned to Stanford that year, Newmeyer joined him and completed her doctorate in microbial genetics in 1951. She married David Perkins, then an assistant professor, on Aug. 1, 1952, and spent the rest of her career as a senior research scientist in his lab working on Neurospora genetics. Poor health forced her early retirement from Stanford in 1988.
In an article published in the May 2002 edition of Nature Genetics Reviews, David Perkins and Rowland H. Davis of the University of California-Irvine described the vital role Neurospora has played in modern genetics, beginning in the 1940s when Tatum and Stanford colleague George Beadle used the mold to obtain the first biochemical mutants. Their Neurospora research earned them the Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology in 1958. By then, however, E. coli bacteria had eclipsed Neurospora as the preferred organism for biochemical and microbial genetics.
Undaunted, Perkins and his Stanford colleagues continued working with Neurospora. By 1982, he and several co-workers had compiled a review that contained data on more than 1,000 mutant Neurospora genes. That work was revised and published in 2001 as The Neurospora Compendium: Chromosomal Loci. It is now considered the definitive reference source for Neurospora scientists, Jacobson said.
Most of Perkins' early research relied on laboratory strains of Neurospora. But in 1968, he began collecting wild specimens in Asia, Africa and elsewhere. His goal was to provide scientists with genetically diverse varieties of the organism on which to conduct research. He collected more than 5,000 specimens over a period of 17 years, many of which helped scientists discover new insights into Neurospora evolution and reproduction.
Carrying on the tradition of Neurospora work was the most important scientific contribution of the Perkins lab, said Charles Yanofsky, professor emeritus of biological sciences at Stanford.
"David was my exceptional friend, colleague and fellow scientist for many years," Yanofsky said. "Beadle and Tatum initiated research using Neurospora, but it was David who made certain that this interest would continue. I will miss not having him just down the hall, to talk with daily. I will never forget him."
If there are scientific saints, David Perkins was surely one of them, wrote collaborator Rowland Davis. "His generosity, modesty and genuine pride in his craft illuminated us all," Davis said. "To the end, he tended Neurospora like a constant gardener, showing us all how to tend gardens of our own. His departure, like his life, was dignified, and all the more poignant because Dot refused to let him go."
David and Dorothy Perkins transcended science, added Robert J. Lloyd of Eastern Washington University. "They not only brought black students from East Palo Alto [Calif.] to the lab for tutoring, they hired a young black civil rights worker with only a high school education to work in the lab from 1968 to 1972," Lloyd wrote. "It was the only job I have ever had that never felt like going to work. … David and Dot provided a yardstick—they taught by example. And they never lost their passion for justice."
Fellowships and honors
David Perkins was editor of the journal Genetics from 1963 to 1967 and president of the Genetics Society of America in 1977. He was a visiting research fellow at the University of Glasgow (1954-55), Columbia University (1962-63) and Australian National University (1968-69). Elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1981, Perkins was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 1983 and an honorary member of the British Mycological Society in 2005. He received a career achievement award from the National Institutes of Health and the 1994 Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal for lifetime contributions from the Genetics Society of America. Members of the Neurospora community recently established the David Perkins Award for outstanding graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.
Dorothy Perkins was a research fellow at New York University in 1951 and a visiting investigator at the Australian National University, along with her husband. They also were visiting scholars at the University of California-San Diego, the University of Washington and the University of Hawaii from 1975 to 1976.
The couple is survived by their daughter, Susan Perkins, of Seattle. David also is survived by a sister in Florida.
At the couple's request, no funeral was held. A memorial celebration for them will take place on March 20, the opening night of the 24th Fungal Genetics Conference, at the Asilomar Conference Grounds, 800 Asilomar Ave., Pacific Grove, Calif.
Contributions can be sent to the Perkins Award Fund or the Fungal Genetics Stock Center Endowment. Checks should be made payable to the Genetics Society of America, with the preferred contribution written on the lower-left corner of the check, and mailed c/o Elaine Strass, Executive Director, Genetics Society of America, 9650 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20814.