Former Yale College dean and Nobel laureate Sidney Altman has died at his New Jersey residence on April 5. He was 82 years old.
Altman, an Emeritus professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1989 for his discovery of the catalytic properties of RNA. Altmann became a professor at the University in 1971 and served as Dean of Yale College from 1985 to 1989. As dean, Altman helped pave the way for the university’s approach to graduate science education.
“Sid Altman was a great scientist and a great university leader,” Tamar Gendler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, told the News. “In the late 1980s, when I was a graduate student, he served as dean of Yale College, where he was involved in supervising not only the students but also the faculty. He was insightful and dedicated. A few years later, he was recognized with the Nobel Prize for his scientific contributions. This extraordinary combination – a truly great scientist, a truly dedicated university citizen, separates Sid and his legacy.
Born in Canada in 1939, Altman grew up in Montreal, where his mother worked in a textile mill and his father in a grocery store. Both of his parents were first-generation immigrants, and Altman focused heavily on the importance of foster education.
“Canada was a land of opportunity for our immediate family and relatives,” Altman wrote in a short autobiography for the Nobel Foundation. “However, it is clear that the path to opportunity for the first generation of Canadian-born children is through education. No sacrifice was too great to carry our education forward, and fortunately the books and learning tradition were not unknown in our family.
Outside of his studies, Altman was a big fan of ice hockey and a great hockey player. He earned a master’s degree from MIT, where he studied physics and played for the club hockey team.
Altman began his academic career as a physicist. It was only during the last semester at MIT that, according to the autobiography, he took a short introductory course in molecular biology “to know what all the excitement is”.
After graduating in 1960, Altman began his PhD in physics at Columbia University. But he soon questioned his decision to become a physicist and eventually decided to leave Colombia to join the University of Colorado Medical School as a graduate student. There he studied biophysics under the guidance of Leonard Lerman, who was conducting advanced research on DNA.
After completing his PhD, Altman first went to Harvard, where he worked with Matthew Messelson, and then went to the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology or MRC in Cambridge, UK, where he began working with Nobel laureate Francis. Crick and Nobel laureate Sidney Brunner.
“I was privileged to join the group. . . In place of [MRC] In Cambridge, England, ”Altman wrote. “As a former physicist, I felt like I fit in with my peers [Niels] Bohr’s group in Copenhagen in the 1920s. It has become a science paradise. ”
At MRC, Altman conducted research that led to the discovery of the ribozyme RNase P, which contains the structural RNA molecule and one or more proteins, for which he was eventually awarded the Nobel Prize.
Altman’s longtime colleague Emeritus Joel Rosenbaum, a professor of developmental biology at Molecular and Cellular, recalls how Clement Markert, then chairman of Yale’s Biology, went to Cambridge to see Altman and work on the spot. “The two quickly became friends,” Rosenbaum said.
At Yale, Altman rose through the ranks as he continued his work on the enzymatic properties of RNA. Altman’s work ended in 1978 with an analysis of RNSP with the conclusion that RNA – based ribosomes may have catalytic properties, with the base he built on MRC.
“When he sent his first publications on ribosomes [in the late 1970s]The community of molecular biologists, including many from Yale who work on RNA, did not want to believe this work, ”Rosenbaum said. “He had a hard time getting invited to speak at scientific meetings like in Cold Spring Harbor and publishing his works.”
But the scientific community could not ignore Altman’s activities for long. It soon became clear that ribosomes were the future of molecular biology. Altman, who completed his work at Yale, won the Nobel Prize in 1989, a decade after his discovery in 1978. He received the award along with Thomas R. Cheek, who did similar work at the University of Colorado.
“It did not take long. . . The field of ribosomes is emerging, and today it is an important area of molecular biology, ”Rosenbaum told the News. “I consider [Altman’s] In molecular biology, the discovery of the double helix of DNA by Watson and Crick (Franklin) is of equal importance.
In 1983, Altman became chairman of Yale’s biology department. He began his four years as dean of Yale College in 1985, during which time he maintained an active lab in the Klein Tower and published in major scientific journals.
As dean, Altman led the expansion of the scientific-linguistic requirements of the Yale College curriculum, which still exists today. In 1989, Altman returned to his full-time professorship.
“As dean of Yale College, Sid was extraordinarily dedicated to addressing students in all disciplines,” Yale President Peter Salovy told Yale News on Wednesday. “As a great reader, a brilliant writer, and a man of great knowledge, he believed that non-scientists should have an understanding of science, and that scientists would benefit from having a rich understanding of the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences.”
Altman was born in 1972 to Ann M. Married Corner. He has two children, Leah and Daniel, and four grandchildren.
“My marriage to Ann Corner made my life a lot richer,” Altman wrote in his autobiography for the Nobel Foundation. “In every sense, my wife is my colleague, mentor and friend. She and our two children … have contributed immensely to any success I have achieved.
Altman’s funeral will be private.