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Feature

Ed Lewis.

Nobel prize winner and University alumnus Ed Lewis.

Of fruit flies and flutes: alumnus and Nobel laureate Edward Lewis dies

Alumnus and Nobel laureate Edward Lewis dies

By Deane Morrison

Published on July 28, 2004

Edward Lewis, a U of M alumnus who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1995, died of prostate cancer July 21 in Pasadena, Calif. He was 86. Growing up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, he faced a sparse intellectual climate but nurtured two lifelong passions: fruit flies and flutes. Lewis learned the flute well enough to play in the Wilkes-Barre Symphony Orchestra and, while only a high school freshman, started breeding fruit flies. His genetic studies of the tiny insect led him to discover the genes that guide the development of segments along the head-to-tail axis. Not only are these "homeotic" genes found in insects, humans, and everything in between, but they tend to be arranged on chromosomes in the same order as the body segments they control. A transfer student from Bucknell University, Lewis came to the U because it offered opportunities not to be found elsewhere. "A professor who was a pioneer in fruit fly genetics made room for Lewis in his own lab," says Bob Elde, dean of the College of Biological Sciences, who knew Lewis. "Lewis said his experience at the U was pivotal to his development as a scientist." Lewis received a bachelor's degree in biostatistics in 1939 and headed to graduate school at the California Institute of Technology, where he was a professor from 1946 until his death, with only four years off as an Air Force meteorologist during World War II. He did much of his seminal work on fruit flies in the days when the role of DNA as the material of heredity wasn't yet known. By all accounts a warm and friendly man, Lewis nevertheless took a strong stand in favor of stronger limits on exposures to X-rays. He had seen their power to produce mutations in the flies. According to the New York Times, Lewis studied medical records of Japanese atomic bomb survivors, as well as radiologists and patients exposed to X-rays, and concluded the health risks had been underestimated. He published his findings and presented them to Congress in 1957. In 1993, the U of M honored Lewis with an honorary doctor of science degree and a symposium on homeotic genes. Jeff Simon, a U of M professor of genetics, cell biology, and development, says Lewis impressed him as somebody driven by a fascination with biology rather than a yearning for rewards. Simon recalls taking Lewis to the Walker Art Center and its Cherry Spoon Bridge sculpture, where Lewis showed that he remained a biologist to the core. "I think he enjoyed art, but when we stopped at the pond near the sculpture, he took out a vial and scooped up a water sample," says Simon. "He said he would take it home to study."