Obituary: Kimball C. Atwood III
Friday 23 October 1992
KIMBALL C. ATWOOD III was an outstanding member of that increasingly rare and endangered species, the polymath: he not only importantly advanced knowledge in a variety of specialised areas of biology, but was as competent to discuss relativity theory as he was the origin of life.
An original and accomplished geneticist, he applied that science to the study of human and bacterial populations and also made pioneering observations in the fields of radiation biology, biomathematics, microbial physiology, molecular biology and, in the closing years of his life, marine biology. Above all, he had that precious gift, rightly prized by Pasteur as the chief criterion for success in scientific research, the ability to see what others may already have seen but to be the first to notice it.
However, throughout his scientific life, Atwood firmly resisted the temptation to rush into print: he never yielded to the pressures to 'publish or perish' that currently oppress grant-hungry research workers. None of his 75 scientific papers was a pot-boiler and many of them will remain as landmarks in biology. Indeed, if Atwood had one failing, it was that he shared too generously with others the substance of his original thinking, leaving it to them to excavate and profit by the rich seams that he had uncovered.
'Kim' Atwood, born and raised in New York City, also received his formal education there. After graduating BA from Columbia College and MD from New York University College of Medicine, he spent a brief period of residence at Bellevue Hospital. But he decided then that the study of the biological foundations of medical science was more congenial to him than was the practice of medicine and, in association with Francis Ryan, he began his pioneering research into the genetical changes that inevitably occur as populations of bacteria grow, under strictly controlled conditions, for many hundreds of generations. It was this work that first earned Atwood the respect and admiration of his scientific peers, for his demonstration of 'periodic selection' also provided the first and wholly convincing laboratory-based support for Darwin's postulate that selection was an essential prerequisite of evolution.
For the first eight years of the 1950s, Atwood investigated the effects of radiation on genetic material. This involved him in a range of experiments that included some carried out at 'ground zero' of three atomic bomb tests in Nevada. The results of that work exemplify beautifully Atwood's flair both for emphasising the truly novel and important in his findings and for foreseeing phenomena that remained to be experimentally demonstrated. Thus, he showed that, although the code enshrined in the genes is ultimately translated into proteins, the immediate product of genetic expression must be a substance that was not a protein: as we now know, there is a transcription step prior to translation. Atwood also foresaw that, in order to keep to extremely low levels the persistence of mutations that arise spontaneously, cells must contain 'proof-reading' and 'editing' systems that control the fidelity with which the genetic material is transmitted to succeeding generations.
After two years at Chicago Atwood took the post of Head of Microbiology at the University of Illinois, where he remained for nine years. In collaboration mainly with Ferruccio Ritossa and Sol Spiegelman, he developed and exploited the then novel procedure of nucleic acid hybridisation which now occupies a central place in biotechnology as well as in molecular genetics. In 1969, Atwood accepted appointment to Columbia University Medical School, where he remained for the rest of his academic career. There he further applied hybridisation, particularly to identify and quantify the genes that specify the protein-synthesising machinery in the cells of a wide range of primates.
Atwood retired to his summer home on Cape Cod, in Woods Hole, in 1987. He maintained his scientific interest by participating in the summer programmes of the Marine Biological Laboratory, both by teaching and by participating actively in laboratory research. For the remainder of the year, he could pursue his many other interests, in all of which he excelled. Atwood was a passionate horticulturist and his garden was a tribute to his prowess as a geneticist as much as to his green fingers. He was also an expert scuba-diver who, at the age of 68, acceded to the coveted rank of Divemaster; he was also an intrepid sailor. As a biologist who loved and was interested in all forms of life, Atwood had a particular fascination for snakes: for many years, a python lived as a member of the Atwood family.
Kim Atwood was a private man, who shunned the limelight, and who could be a remorseless (but never unkind) critic of the spurious. But he and his wife Barbara were also the most generous of hosts and the staunchest of friends, whose many dinner parties blended harmoniously good food, good wine and good talk. Kim Atwood will be sadly missed as a great teacher, a prolific catalyst of ideas and as the best of good companions.
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