Jan. 22, 2004
Vol. 23 No. 8

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    Swift, first to measure DNA in various cells

    An internationally recognized expert on electron microscopy, chromosome structure and function, and the use of DNA to study evolutionary relationships, Hewson H. Swift, the George Wells Beadle Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology and Pathology, and a member of the Committee on Genetics and the Committee on Developmental Biology, died at the University Hospitals Thursday, Jan. 1. He was 83.

    A pioneer in the use of quantitative microscopy, Swift was the first scientist to measure the amount of DNA in various types of cells and in such cell components as mitochondria and chloroplasts. This work helped convince biologists that these organelles had genomes of their own. His finding that nearly all cells from an animal have the same amount of DNA and that germ cells have half as much, confirmed the principal of DNA constancy and helped end lingering skepticism about DNA’s genetic role.

    “Hewson Swift was not only a distinguished cell biologist but also a shining example for colleagues and students of how to do science,” said Edwin Taylor, the Louis Block Professor in Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology. “He was a man of extraordinary integrity. He was honest, fair and unprejudiced, and he seemed to know everything about everything. If you had a question about biology, he was the first person to ask.”

    Laurens Mets, Chairman of Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology, said of his colleague: “Swift applied the most modern techniques to many current as well as old-fashioned problems. With his death we lost an irreplaceable resource, a true naturalist, someone with vast biological information and understanding, ranging from ornithology to molecular biology, which were linked together in no other person or place.”

    Born Nov. 8, 1920, in Auburn, N.Y., Swift grew up in New York City. His early interest in insects and birds led him to study zoology at Swarthmore College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1942. He earned a master’s degree in 1945 from the University of Iowa, where he and his wife, Joan Woodcock, both had fellowships.

    Before pursuing his Ph.D. in zoology at Columbia University in 1947, he served as an entomologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and later the Curator of Spiders at the U.S. National Museum. In 1949, Swift accepted a position teaching zoology at Chicago and became a professor in 1958. He served as Chairman of Biology from 1972 to 1977, and became the George Wells Beadle Distinguished Service Professor in Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology and Pathology in 1977.

    His many honors and awards include election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1971, a fellowship at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the University’s Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, and the Gold Key Award from the Medical Alumni Association for curriculum contributions. Swift was particularly proud of the E.B. Wilson Award for outstanding research in cell biology, which he was awarded by the American Society for Cell Biology.

    In 1960, Swift and biologist Keith Porter, then at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, founded the American Society for Cell Biology. The two agreed to start a small scientific society and organized its first meeting in Chicago. They were pleasantly surprised when 700 scientists showed up, contributing 230 papers. While serving as its president from 1963 to 1964, Swift helped launch the Journal of Cell Biology, which became the society’s official journal.

    Swift’s early research explored quantitative aspects of nucleic acids in a number of biological processes—including mitosis, growth and differentiation. His later research concerned the characterization of membrane proteins in Prochloron and other primitive marine algae, a study of symbiotic genomes of lichens, DNA-scaffold attachments in human lymphocytes, studies on nuclear polyploidy in plant evolution, and an investigation of a gene affecting cell shape in a cyanobacterium.

    Swift, whose University career spanned 54 years and included teaching 110 courses, gave much of the credit for his laboratory successes to his approximately 50 graduate students and postdoctoral students with whom he worked over the years.

    Swift is survived by his wife Joan; two daughters, Deirdre Ann Swift of Chicago and Barbara Brauer of San Geronimo, Calif.; and three grandchildren.

    A memorial service is planned for noon Saturday, Jan. 31, in Bond Chapel on the University campus. (For memorial details, see: http://swiftmemorial.uchicago.edu). In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Hewson Swift lectureship in the Department of Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology at the University.