In Memoriam: Donald D. Brown (Dec. 1931 – May 2023)

Donald Brown

A trail-blazer in the study of genes

Don Brown who served as the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) President in 1992 has passed away. Don purified the first eukaryotic gene before the era of DNA cloning, using ultracentrifugation to enrich the amplified ribosomal RNA (rRNA) genes from oocytes of the frog Xenopus. This feat provided the material for others to clone the very first eukaryotic gene, thus launching the recombinant DNA era. Subsequently, Don turned his attention to developmental regulation of gene transcription, studying the 5S RNA genes from Xenopus. He discovered that its expression was regulated by an Internal Control Region (ICR) within the gene body. Don concluded his career with studies on amphibian metamorphosis. His identification of thyroid hormone-controlled genes provided insight into the hormonal control of embryonic organ development, cell growth and programmed cell death.

In recognition of his scientific prowess, Don was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received numerous awards for his impactful scientific achievements, including the Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science.

Don was a scientific leader. He organized the first Developmental Biology Gordon Conference in 1970. He served the Society for Developmental Biology (SDB) as its Treasurer (1967-1969) and President (1974-1975), and he received the SDB Lifetime Achievement award in 2009. Don’s colleague, Joe Gall (who was ASCB President in 1968), convinced Don to run for President of the ASCB. As ASCB President, Don started the “Profiles” in the ASCB Newsletter to foster a sense of community among its members. He also led a review of the ASCB By-laws during his term of office. In 1991, when Marc Kirschner was ASCB President, a vote was taken on whether to merge ASCB with SDB—the proposed merger was approved by SDB members but not by ASCB members. When Don became ASCB President (1992), he re-opened the issue and lobbied hard for the merger. On the re-vote, the sentiments were reversed and ASCB approved the merger but not SDB (feeling like the scorned lover after the first vote). Subsequently, Don received the ASCB EB Wilson Award (1996).

Don was an impactful mentor to many, both at the Carnegie Institution – Department of Embryology where he was the Director (1976-1994) and nationwide. He instituted a junior staff scientist position at the Carnegie to promote greater independence than being a postdoc working on someone else’s research ideas. Don founded the Life Sciences Research Foundation (LSRF) which awards postdoctoral fellowships. As a tribute to his many contributions to the scientific community, several obituaries about Don have been published recently, as listed below. His friendship, insights, and sage advice will be missed

Susan A. Gerbi, the George Eggleston Professor of Biochemistry at Brown University, first met Don in the late 1960s when she was a graduate student with Joseph Gall at Yale. Don’s experiments were critical for her later research where she sequenced the first metazoan rRNA gene (cloned from Xenopus), paving the way to elucidate the crucial role played by rRNA in ribosome function. In 1993 she succeeded Don as ASCB President, and they worked closely together.

Recent articles about Don Brown:

  • Brown DD (2012). Lasker-Koshland award essay: Developmental biology using purified genes. Nature Medicine 18: xxvi-xxviii.
  • Gerbi SA (2023). Obituary: Donald D. Brown (1931-2023). Molecular biologist who paved the way for targeted genetic engineering. Nature 620: 271.
  • Halpern ME and Harland R (2023). In memoriam: Donald D. Brown (1931-2023). Dev Biol. 501: A18-A20.
  • Koshland D (2023) Obituary: Donald Brown (1931-2023). Cell 186: 3745-3746.
  • McKnight SL (2012). Pure genes, pure genius. Cell 150: 1100-1102.
  • McKnight S and Spradling A (2023). Retrospective: Donald D. Brown (1931-2023). Father of molecular embryology. Science 381: 128.
  • Pederson T (2023) Retrospective: Donald Brown: Pioneer of embryo development and advocate for early career funding. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 120 (31): e2310224120.

About the Author:

Susan A. Gerbi is the George Eggleston Professor of Biochemistry at Brown University.