Cover photo for Dr. Waclaw Szybalski's Obituary
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1921 Dr. 2020

Dr. Waclaw Szybalski

September 9, 1921 — December 15, 2020

Dr. Waclaw Tadeusz Szybalski, a long-time Professor at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research, passed away peacefully in his sleep on Wednesday, December 16, 2020. He was 99 years old. Waclaw was born September 9, 1921 and raised in the then city of Lwów, Poland, the son of Michalina Rakowska Szybalski, a crystallographer, and Stefan Szybalski, an electrical engineer. He showed a strong intellect and a keen interest in science, even as a young boy and this stayed with him his whole life.

Waclaw received his education in Poland at the Institutes of Technology in Lwów, receiving a BS in chemical engineering in 1944, a MS in chemical engineering in 1945 in Gliwice, and a doctorate in 1949 in Gdansk, all during the extremely difficult period of World War II. The Szybalski family managed to survive both the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Lwow partly due to their involvement in the production of typhus vaccine at the Typhus Institute of Professor Weigl, where many of the intelligentsia of Lwów were sheltered during the chaos of WWII. Waclaw’s knowledge of how distill homemade vodka, the currency of choice during the war, and his extensive resourcefulness also helped immensely.

After short periods as a Visiting Professor at the Institute of Technology in Copenhagen, Denmark, the always determined Waclaw was able to escape the Stalinist regime in Poland and immigrate to the United States in 1950, arriving with $35 in his pocket and his hard-earned scientific education. He immediately found work as a scientist at Wyeth Inc., West Chester PA, and then joined the famous Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, in Cold Spring Harbor, NY, from 1951-1955 as a Staff Member. This was an exciting time and place to be working in the early golden age of molecular genetics, in the company of future Nobel Prize winners, such as James Watson, Barbara McClintock, Alfred Hershey, Max Delbrück and Salvador Luria. Here, in 1952, Waclaw met his future wife, Dr. Elizabeth Hunter, a fellow scientist. They were married in 1955. Waclaw then worked at the Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, as an Associate Member from 1955-1960.

In 1960, Waclaw joined the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research at the University of Wisconsin, Madison as an Associate Professor of Oncology, and rose to the rank of full Professor in 1963. For over 25 years Waclaw and Elizabeth worked together, carrying out ground-breaking research in genetics and molecular biology. He published over 250 scientific papers over 63 years, starting in 1949, covering many areas of biology, including bacterial genetics, mechanisms of drug resistance and radiosensitization, mutagenesis, function of antibiotics, multi-drug therapy, molecular biology of bacteriophages, particularly phage lambda, genetic engineering, gene therapy, and DNA biochemistry/sequencing.

Waclaw made major contributions to our understanding of molecular biology and genetics. His prolific research output in the United States began with genetic studies of drug resistance that led to the use of multi-drug therapy that is now widely used to treat bacterial and viral infections and cancer. His studies of the antibiotic-producing soil microorganism, Streptomyces, yielded information that was useful in the commercial production of streptomycin, an effective therapeutic for treating tuberculosis. Waclaw, along with his wife Elizabeth, were the first researchers to perform gene transfer into mammalian cells (using HAT medium) and to introduce the ground-breaking idea that treatment for human genetic diseases could be made possible through gene therapy. Waclaw was always a visionary and years ahead of his time in foreseeing the future of molecular genetics. His work laid the foundations for several Nobel Prizes won by others.

He also founded and served as the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Gene from 1976-1996, and served on the editorial boards of numerous other journals.  Fellow Pole, Pope John Paul II, sought his advice on the then new field of genetic engineering, during a private audience in 1981. Waclaw also strongly and publically defended the rights of free inquiry in science, including “the principle of the freedom to teach and research,” by which alone the truth can be found.

Waclaw retired in 2003, and held the rank of Emeritus Professor of Oncology and of Genetics since then. He received many science awards over the years, was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was a Foreign Member of the Polish Academy of Sciences.  He counts many Nobel Prize winners as mentors and friends, and he himself has been repeatedly nominated. In 2011, he received the highest honor awarded in Poland, becoming a Knight of the Order of Polonia Restituta, First Class, presented by President Komorowski of Poland, one of five Polish Presidents that he has met over the years. He also received five honorary doctorates from leading universities in Poland.

Waclaw contributed greatly to the advancement of molecular genetics both in the United States and Poland, and remained a strong patriot of both countries to the end of his life. He was also a philanthropist, both in the United States and Poland, contributing to many projects benefiting both science and students, and to an annex of the Carnegie Library at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which was named for him. A biography of Waclaw’s long, adventurous and interesting life was recently published by the Gdansk University Press in Poland, and then translated and re-published in English in 2020, and a film, “The Essence of Life” was also made about him.

Waclaw was preceded in death by his wife, Elizabeth. He is survived by his children Jolanta Fabicka of New York, NY, Barbara (Larry) Hunter-Sandor of Prescott, AZ and Stefan Hunter of Key West, FL, his brother Stanislaw (Julienne) Szybalski of Punta Gorda, FL, his niece Eva Szybalski of Berlin, Germany, and his dear companion Dr. Zdenka Hradecna of Brno, Czech Republic.

In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research, at the following link:

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