Jacques Fresco 4 Replies Jacques Robert Fresco, the Damon B. Pfeiffer Professor in the Life Sciences, Emeritus, died Dec. 5, 2021. He was 93.
I met Jacques Fresco in 1960, in the laboratory of Paul Doty at Harvard. These were exciting times — in the Doty laboratory Jacques and Bruce Alberts had proposed structural features of RNA, and Julius Marmur demonstrated strand separation and recombination in DNA. The first three-dimensional protein structure, of sperm whale myoglobin, had just come out from Cambridge, England. I followed Jacques to Princeton, and we stayed in touch for the rest of our lives: I coauthored papers with Jacques in 1961 and in 2002! (I wonder whether that is some kind of record.)
Personally, it was a great pleasure to me also, to know Rosalie and their daughters. I retain decades of memories. Just one example: On several occasions when the Frescos went on summer vacation, they asked me to house-sit while they were away. It became a tradition to invite a couple of people from the lab one evening for a very formal dinner party — using all the Frescos’ best dishes, silverware and table linens — and, of course, candlesticks! (As careful laboratory scientists, we never broke anything.)
Jacques Fresco shed light into how the secondary and tertiary structures of ribonucleic acids inform their biology. Shapeshifting polynucleotides were unraveled as much by his scientific rigor as by the sheer force of his creativity. Paving the way for fleshing out transfer RNA helped unlock how the code of life itself is translated. Widening DNA base pairing possibilities provided a chemical basis for the origin of substitution mutations. And discovering that DNA can self-mutate offered a mechanism for the evolution and potentiation of genetic diversity.
I must have been one of Jacques’ last undergraduate thesis students. After Princeton, I kept visiting Jacques and Rosalie through the years, always around Thanksgiving, when my partner Katie, also a scientist, and I decamped with family in nearby New Jersey. The year we got engaged, we brought home-made cookies, and Jacques wrote after the visit: “Please thank her for the delicious cookies. Rosalie and I savored a couple, and they show talent in a field besides science!”
Jacques was entirely responsible for my academic career.
Before Jacques hired me as a technician, I was a 20-year-old quality-control technician at an automotive friction products factory in Trenton NJ and an evening student at Trenton Junior College. In his Princeton lab, I discovered simple ways to determine the GC content of DNA and to differentiate double-stranded RNA from triple-stranded, both of which resulted in a few publications with members of Jacques lab, including one publication with Ted Richards and Jacques in the 1963 Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology.
Jacques was responsible for my admission to Princeton. This must have been a tough sell, as Princeton admitted only a few transfer students each year and never one from Trenton Junior College.
After Princeton, I went to graduate school at the University of California San Diego completing my PhD thesis in Bruno Zimm’s lab, from which I went directly to Harvard Biochemistry and Molecular Biology as an assistant professor skipping the usual post doc. I left Harvard as an Associate Professor to spend two years at Princeton as a visiting lecturer renewing my close relationship with Jacques.
After that, I spent eight years as a Vice President at BioTechnica International, a biotech company founded by me, Jacques, and a host of Harvard and MIT post docs. Dave Glass just completed graduate school at Princeton and was one of the first two BioTechnica employees This continued my close relationship with Jacques and Rosalie, and his daughters especially Lulu.
In 1995, I started my third career in biological and chemical weapons arms control policy, where I am still involved as a Senior Science Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Although our interests diverged, Jacques and I still stayed in contact until his death.
Thinking back 50 years ago this month – I got a phone call from my grad school roommate (Bill Stigliani who was then an instructor in the chem dept) informing me that my PhD advisor was denied tenure and he would be leaving Princeton and I had better get my thesis done! I had become distracted from that task by my first teaching job at William Paterson College of NJ. So, I got busy, finished during the next three months and scheduled my defense for June. I finished the semester at WPC but left because the chair (he will remain anonymous even though I do remember his name!) was deranged!
Returned to Princeton so wife #1 could work on her thesis – I asked permission to audit a Biochem course taught by Jacques Fresco which he granted. After lecture one day he asked to see me and asked what are you doing here – I thought you were teaching. I told him I quit that job – his response – you’re crazy! Then he offered me a part-time research position in his lab. My first task was to do a bulk preparation of RNA from 50 pounds of Fleischman yeast. The work started in a 55 gal plastic drum and ended up with about 100 g of tRNA (I think I remember that correctly*)
Jaques was like a second PhD advisor and helped launch my career in the photobiology specialty for which I have been forever grateful. It also taught me how to treat talented students.
*A couple of years later he told me it was the best tRNA prepped up to that time – as they got really good crystals for Xray diffraction studies!