The Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology mourns the passing of our friend and colleague, Mel Simpson, on January 31, 2022.
Mel received his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in 1949 for his studies of protein biosynthesis in the laboratory of Harold Tarver. After his graduate work, Mel joined the faculty at Yale as an Assistant Professor and later moved his lab to Dartmouth University.
In 1967, Mel was recruited to Stony Brook to found a Section of Biochemistry within the Department of Biology. Two years later, in 1969, Biochemistry became a separate department with Mel as the founding chair. He served as chair until 1974 and was responsible for recruiting many of the early faculty in the Department, including Marty Freundlich, Sanford Simon, Rolf Sternglanz, and Masayori Inouye. He is credited with establishing the collegial atmosphere that remains a hallmark of the department to this day. Mel remained on the faculty until his retirement in 1992.
Mel’s early research focused on the mechanisms of protein synthesis, first in liver slices and later in isolated mitochondria. This work led him to study ribosome structure and the mechanism of streptomycin action, as well as identification and characterization of the mitochondrial topoisomerase enzyme. In his work on protein synthesis, Mel made the important observation that protein degradation was ATP-dependent. This result was cited by Irwin Rose, in his acceptance of the 2004 Noble prize for Chemistry, as a key contribution leading up to his work on ubiquitin-mediated proteolysis.
After his retirement, Mel maintained a connection to the department and, until recent years, would return to attend the Mel Simpson lecture held annually in his honor. Mel is remembered fondly for his mentorship, his humor, and his storytelling.
Remembrances of Mel Simpson
From Masayori Inouye
Today (January 31, 2022), I got an E-mail from Nisson Schechter from Stony Brook,
telling me the sad news that Mel Simpson passed away. My memory is going back 53 years ago, 1969. Then, I was 35 years old, working at Princeton University as a postdoctoral fellow. This was my second post-doctoral experience, as I had already spent 5 years in Japan as a postdoctoral fellow. Since it was almost impossible at that time for me to find an academic position in Japan, I had no choice to look for a second postdoctoral position in the States. Fortunately, Dr. Arthur Pardee invited me to work in his laboratory for 2 years in 1968 and 1969 at Princeton University. During that time, SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) was very active at many campuses in the States, which was also transmitted to Japan academic campuses, including the Osaka University, where I had worked for my first postdoctoral research. As there was no chance to continue research in Japan, then, Dr. Pardee strongly pursued me to look for a position in the States. As I had already two children, a 6 year-old daughter and a 3 year-old son, I wanted to educate them in Japan so that I was very much reluctant to stay in the States anymore.
However, as the chance to go back to Japan was shut, I decided to find a job for a short time, not more than two years, in the States. Bruce Alberts, a colleague at Princeton, was kind enough to introduce me to his classmate at Harvard, who was an assistant professor of biochemistry at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Rolf Sternglanz. Mel Simpson, who was Chairman of the Department of Biochemistry, immediately invited me to give a research seminar and surprisingly offered me a position in his department as an associate professor, skipping a position of assistant professor. Since my educational background was totally from Japan, I had no idea about the American academic systems in universities. However, Bruce was, then, insisting that I should call Mel immediately in front of him. So, hesitatingly, I made a call to Mel. In addition to my poor English, I was not sure what exactly I was asking for. As I was mumbling, Mel did not understand what I was asking but it seemed that he thought that I was asking a raise of my salary, for which I did not have even a slightest intention. He told me that he would raise my salary to $25,000. There was no choice for me to tell him ‘Thank you, Mel’. I felt sorry for his misunderstanding me and shame that I could not explain well what exactly I wanted to know.
Mel, I am sorry that I did not have a chance to explain what exactly happened 52 years ago. However, I am still very much appreciating what you gave me -- an unthinkable chance to step into the American academia, which I have been enjoying for the last 52 years. Thank you again, Mel.
From Norm Arnheim
Mel hired me as one of the faculty newbies in 1968 at almost the same time Rolf
Sternglanz and Bernie Dudock arrived at SUNY‐Stony Brook (SBU). Rolf filled the DNA slot and Bernie the RNA slot. I am not sure what my slot was. I had finished a Postdoc at UC Berkeley using immunochemical techniques to quantitate differences in the amino acid composition of the antibacterial egg white enzyme Lysozyme among bird species; the goal was to construct a molecular evolutionary tree. Mel’s background in Biochemistry and mine in Genetics rarely overlapped in those days. In an early conversation he made it clear I needed to learn the biochemical “tricks of the trade” in order to succeed. Mel backed me up all during
my progress towards promotion and tenure (I must have learned at least a few tricks).
It might not be apparent from what I wrote above but Mel and I eventually worked
together on a scientific project. Post‐tenure I had realized that the understanding of molecular evolution required direct study of the genetic material and I went on sabbatical to Ed Southern’s lab in Scotland where I learned the newest technologies used in nucleic acid biochemistry (cloning and Southern blotting). When I moved back to Stony Brook Mel and his student Frank Castora wanted to know more about the latest DNA analysis methods that might help them solve an important question about mitochondrial DNA variation. They wanted to distinguish between whether it resulted from an epigenetic process or base substitutions. Frank generated data supporting the mutation model and Mel made me an author (in the middle) which I thought was especially nice. Speaking of nice, Mel was also an especially nice Chairman and always had a smile on his face. Any Departmental decision had
to be approved by the entire faculty and the meetings sometimes lasted a very, very long time. He wanted everybody to be happy. The last time I saw Mel was at a Biochemistry Department celebration in 1999 where he talked about his interest in using molecular biology to study archeology. Mel was a wonderful person and he still has a place in my heart.
From Angie Rizzino
Mel Simpson was an inspiration to me in so many ways. He was an enormous help to
me when I was selecting where to apply to graduate school. Mel was one of the major reasons that I remained at Stony Brook to earn my doctorate from the Biochemistry Department after completing my undergraduate degree in the Biology Department. Mel recruited fantastic faculty who made the department a wonderful place to do graduate work. I have tried to model his behavior in training my own doctoral students. I hope I did Mel justice.
From Jakob Schmidt
What I remember most about Mel are less the professional than the ‘extracurricular’
aspects of his life. Of course, I will always be thankful to him for having hired me back in 1973 and for having built a department that was uniquely devoid of factionalism, power struggles or lasting animosities. But the specifics that stick in my mind are of a more personal nature. There are his repeated visits to the old Smithtown Hospital way back in 1979 when I had come down with Lyme arthritis, then a new and scary disease, and again in 1986 to the University Hospital, after I had suffered a possibly life-threatening carotid dissection. I also remember his farranging intellectual curiosity, from hominid evolution to animal rights to cosmology to Mesoamerican archaeology - “I am virtually a professional archaeologist by now” he told me at
the time – and the resulting stimulating hallway conversations. As for his hospitality and generosity, I don’t know all its beneficiaries, he certainly was very interested in, and supportive of, music at Stony Brook, including the HD transmissions of the Metropolitan Opera; he kept reminding me to attend concerts in the Staller Center and we regularly met there at the Sunday afternoon Baroque events; he donated to wildlife conservation, with elephants (and probably whales) topping the list; and he used to bring Christmas gifts for the department secretaries also, a special manifestation of his kindness and of his devotion to the Department. So much for a human rather than career-oriented laudatio. I will always remember Mel as an enthusiastic, engagé, passionate, witty, generous, cordial person of science and friendship, a Mensch.
From Ken Marcu
I have only fond memories of Mel. In the summer of 1970 (2 years after Mel founded the Biochem. Dept.) I started working in Bernie Dudock’s lab, and so much enjoyed doing research I thus found my calling and completed my BS in Biology at Stony Brook in 1972 and then joined the Molecular Biology graduate program that same year and completed my PhD in 1975 having published a number of papers with Bernie on the functions of modified bases in tRNAs in protein synthesis and then after a 3 year post doc at the Institute for Cancer Research in Philadelphia returned to the Biochem. Dept as an Assistant Professor in 1978 when Masayori Inouye had assumed the department’s chairmanship. I myself retired in 2016. Rest in peace Dear Mel!
From Kenneth P. Samuel
Please accept my deepest condolences on the passing of Mel Simpson. I was recruited into the Ph.D. program by Mel in 1972, after my undergraduate mentor called him and recommended me for the graduate program in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology. Mel brought me to Stony Brook, but I left with a Masters degree in 1974. I am sincerely grateful, and owe a sense of gratitude to Mel Simpson for the opportunity that he gave me to spend time in his laboratory during that period. But I am especially thankful to him for the lessons learned and the valuable graduate training experience that have have allowed me to continue the journey after leaving Stony Brook. I did continued my graduate training and obtained a Ph.D. degree from Georgetown University.
I thank you Mel for taking me into your laboratory and for giving me my early start in research training in graduate school, and that has allowed me to continue further training and succeed.
From Dale and Lou Deutsch
When we were at the University of Chicago, Dale was looking for a postdoctoral position in memory and learning while my wife Lou was completing her PhD thesis. Mel in collaboration with Michael Gazzaniga (in Psychology at Stony Brook) advertised for a biochemist to study learning using “split brain pigeons” such that one side of the brain could be a control while the other side learned how to do a task. I remember Nisson Schechter, who was also a postdoc on the project, interviewing me for the job. So, in 1976 we moved to a bungalow in Sound Beach. At some point Mel spent a lot of time to set up Lou with a part time job doing dark room photography for the department. Mel taught me about protein synthesis using radioactive methionine, a method he pioneered. Lou especially remembers, with fondness, the lunches in the Graduate Biology Building with Mel and the people in his laboratory where we talked and debated. Mel ate sardines while expressing his opinions on many topics.
For the next 40 plus years Lou and I remained at Stony Brook eventually both becoming Full Professors (Lou in Hispanic Languages and literature). We remained good friends with Mel and his wife Giulia. What I remember most about Mel was that he was a very tolerant and fair-minded person. For example, he told me to be more respectful to Richie D’Amato, the talented building manager. He was a loyal friend. Once he and Giulia drove to JFK with us to retrieve my brother back to Stony Brook’s psychiatry department, after he had psychotic episode. Mel supported me in returning to the Biochemistry Department as an Assistant Professor after some tumultuous years working in the hospital as a Toxicologist.
Mel’s and my father both worked in the trades (sheetmetal worker and electrician, respectively) and it turned out we were also both handy doing things around the house. It was useful since we both had boats, that always needed work. We and took each other out on our boats a few times. We would reminisce especially about our long sailing trips, some lasting for weeks.
For years we would visit each other’s homes. When we came on time Mel would say “you guys are here already?”. One Sunday he came to our house 1.5 hours late forgetting the “fall back” clock change. I remember that Mel’s favorite was a thing called schmaltz herring. When Mel and Giulia moved to Jefferson Ferry, he loved eating at restaurants and would look forward to the four of us going out, especially to Pasta Pasta in Port Jefferson. When he was around 99 years old, I would bring him snacks of herring (we would eat on a bench outside because of the pandemic) until the assisted living part of the facility didn’t allow him to eat solid food. He would recognize the taste of the herring better than my face. He was like a second Dad to me!
From Wallace Marshall
Back when I was an undergraduate doing research in Rolf Sternglanz's lab, I ate lunch with Mel Simpson every day out in the hallway. While he ate his daily can of sardines, we would talk about all sorts of random topics. sometimes he would ask what I was reading, other times he would tell me stories about degaussing ship hulls in WWII or we would discuss science topics like mitochondrial DNA topology. Even though I was just an undergrad who didn't know very much, and he was a senior professor, he always talked to me like I was a colleague, and that had a lasting impression on my identity as a scientist.
From Mary Ann Bernero
Fifty-five years ago, the Biology Dept. hired me. This was my first state job at Stony Brook University.
The first time I met Mel Simpson was on a summer day in 1966. A large moving van pulled into the loading dock of the Biology Stockroom. The new faculty member arriving at Stony Brook from Dartmouth was Mel Simpson and his graduate students.
The Chairman of Biology, Frank Erk, assigned me to help Dr. Simpson unpack his equipment to set up his lab in room 301 of the Biology Building. There were numerous boxes to unpack and sort the glassware, chemicals and equipment. Since I did not know the names of most of the glassware I used the Fisher catalog to figure out the names in order to write them on the drawers and cabinets in the lab. Dr. Simpson showed me how to use some of the equipment. That summer, I learned a great deal about laboratory items: chemicals, glassware, and equipment. My previous laboratory experiences had been part of lab courses. The Simpson Lab was the first modern research lab that I experienced. The atmosphere in the lab was professional and friendly.
The new Biochemistry Dept. grew to fill the entire third floor of the Biology building. Busy with floor model centrifuges and big refrigerators located in the hall.
The small Stock room on the ground floor became a busy place. One of the new Biology faculty members to arrive at Stony Brook in 1968 was Harvard Lyman from Brookhaven National Lab. He would come to the stockroom often. Some years later, he became my husband.
Mel was in the Navy during World War II. He was an experienced sailor and owned a sloop he moored in Setauket Harbor. He invited a group of us to join him for a sail on his boat. This was my first sail on a boat with an inboard engine, galley and head. I realized that I really enjoyed sailing on large boats.
We had Christmas holiday parties at Sunwood. Mel liked joke gifts. A graduate student dressed as Santa would present the gifts to members of the faculty and staff. It was great fun.
Fall BBQ at Sunwood was an annual event. It was relaxed; the faculty and staff brought their families. It was a great way for people to get to know each other at the start of the semester.
I was the first woman in my family to attend college. Mel would ask me how I was doing with my courses. He gave me good advice on how to survive the competitive atmosphere of Stony Brook. I finished my Master’s Degree at Stony Brook. The most important thing that I learned from Mel was how to supervise staff. His style of supervision was to be helpful, critical and to communicate with them often.
Mel was a supporter of the Staller Center for the Arts. Harvey and I would meet Mel and Guilia at performances and the summer movie series.
I will miss Mel’s friendship. The stories of the exotic places he visited and his sail on the Sea Cloud [a three mast, square rig, 384 ft. yacht].
Harvey and I booked a voyage on the Sea Cloud; we will always remember the experience, and thanked Mel for suggesting that we must go.
From Maurille (Skip) and Jan Fournier
We came to Stony Brook with Mel, from Dartmouth Medical School in 1966 (along with other student and postdoc researchers). On Day-1 we remember Biology’s Mary Ann Bernero helping us unpack the van and get settled into a giant former teaching lab! See her notes. We remember this kindness and have great pride in helping establish the Department of Biochemistry.
In addition to Mel, other faculty founders of the new department included Vince Cirillo, Monica Riley, Carl Moos, and Marty Freundlich, all terrific scientists, teachers, and colleagues. Under Mel’s creative, high-energy leadership and vision, this band of talented and dedicated builders created the foundation of the exciting, superb department which exists today, with its expanded expertise (and title) and vibrant culture.
Our time with Mel provided us with wonderful insights into science, administrative leadership and life. Thank you, Dear Mel. Working together with Mel as student and mentor, Skip discovered the great excitement and satisfaction of experimental science and the desire to pursue such a life. I will be eternally grateful. Mel was a great model as a research advisor and collaborator. This led to an academic career with concentrations in RNA science and protein engineering, primarily in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst until retirement (2002) and closing the lab (2013).
Mel launched the SUNY-SB Biochemistry department from a small office next to his lab, with Assistant-Jan in a tiny space outside his door. This was the nerve center for building the new department, with legal pads (Mel), a typewriter (Jan) and telephones (both). Jan is also grateful for Mel’s good mentoring and kindness. Her career also continued in a similar vein at other institutions, primarily in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst until retirement (2002).
Like other members of Mel’s scientific family our memories also include great pleasures. Following a Biochemistry Congress in Stockholm, Skip and Skip’s first Ph.D. student joined Mel in journeying to the top of Norway by train, boat, auto and bus. It was a terrific 3-generation family adventure. I wish we could do it again.
Here’s an amusing anecdote from New Hampshire, just prior to our move to SB. Mel and Marty were sharing thoughts about the benefits to come. Both agreed ‘How good it will be to have bagels!’ As naïve young Vermonters Skip and Jan had never seen a bagel! How good to have that deficiency corrected! Professor Mel (and Marty) taught more than biochemistry!
From Greg Brown
When I arrived in Mel’s lab as a postdoc in the late spring of 1977 I initially intended to study mitochondrial DNA replication. Shortly before I arrived, however, Mel and a graduate student in the lab, Jim Francisco, discovered that there were two types of mitochondrial DNA in lab rats that could be distinguished by restriction endonucleases. I followed up on this discovery, pursuing research on mitochondrial DNA polymorphism, evolution and genetics. I left Mel’s lab to accept a faculty position in Biology at McGill University, in Montreal, Canada in 1981 and remained for there for the rest of my career, retiring as a Full Professor in 2016.
In the late evening of March 19, 1980, Mel and I were at his home in Setauket working on a manuscript, when we received a call from (my very pregnant) wife Sheila: her water had just broken. I hurried home and we waited, as recommended by our obstetrician, for her contractions to be spaced less than 5 minutes apart. We were still waiting at around 9 am, when I received a call from Mel. I explained the situation to him and was told, in no uncertain terms, we were to get to the hospital immediately. Upon arrival we discovered that we were in the midst of a breach birth; 45 minutes later, after an emergency C-section, we were the proud parents of a 3-week early but fully healthy baby girl. That baby girl now lives near me in Montreal and has two of her own!
I have fond memories of my time in Mel’s lab, of my great colleagues there and of the spirit of collaboration among the labs in the Department. The training I received with Mel provided the basis of my career in science and though I remain deeply indebted to him for that I am, as the episode above illustrates, indebted to him for much more. I was greatly saddened to learn of his passing. He was a fine mentor and a fine man. R.I.P. Mel.