Earl Evans, 1910-1999

Earl Evans, 1910-1999

October 5, 1999

Earl Alisan Evans, PhD, of Chicago, professor emeritus and former chairman of the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Chicago, died from pneumonia on October 5, 1999. He was 89.

Although Evans was a pioneer in several fields, including the use of radioactive isotopes to study metabolism and the use of a group of viruses known as bacteriophages to study the workings of DNA--research that was crucial to the development of the modern field of molecular biology--he was perhaps best known as a far-sighted, imaginative, and magnanimous leader, who built and maintained one of the top-rated biochemistry departments in the United States during his 30-year chairmanship from 1942 to 1972.

"Earl Evans did groundbreaking work in a number of areas then shifted his commitment to finding and supporting other people who did important research, quickly establishing the department as a leader in many different areas and as a place that trained the people who led departments elsewhere," said Donald Steiner, MD, the A.N. Pritzker Professor or Biochemistry and a Howard Hughes senior investigator at the University of Chicago. "He was an excellent scientist in his own right and was extraordinarily generous in supporting others, providing them with the resources and independence to develop their own research programs."

Eugene Kennedy, professor emeritus of biochemistry at Harvard who completed his PhD in biochemistry in the Evans years then taught in the department, also recalled his "extraordinary intellectual generosity. . . . It may have interfered with his own research," recalled Kennedy, "but it was one of the qualities that helped him assemble a brilliant department that quickly earned national prominence."

"He was genuinely inspiring," said Eugene Goldwasser, PhD, professor emeritus of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Chicago. "He not only seemed to know all there was about nearly everything, but he also had a true intellectual understanding of how to communicate what he knew easily, yet convincingly, about science or anything else. This was one of the skills that made him such an effective leader."

Evans' early research focused on the use of radioactive isotopes as "tracers," markers that could be used to follow the metabolism of various substances within the body. Evans pioneered the use of a short-lived carbon isotope--11C, produced in the cyclotron at the University of Chicago by his colleague Louis Slotkin--and used it to show that animal cells, like photosynthetic plants, were capable of using carbon dioxide for the synthesis of carbohydrates--a process known as CO2 fixation. This work brought him the Lilly Prize in 1941.

In the late 1940s, Evans shifted his attention to the biochemistry of genes. He was part of a movement known as the "phage group," path-breaking scientists who studied with a group of viruses that infect bacteria to reveal how genes worked. Evans and colleagues investigated how these bacteriophages inject their DNA through the bacterial cell wall, and how the injected DNA produces new viral particles. They demonstrated that when pure viral DNA was transferred into bacterial cells it could initiate the entire virus reproductive cycle, even in the absence of any viral protein. These studies confirmed the seminal importance of DNA as the material that carries genetic information.

Born March 11, 1910, in Baltimore, Evans earned his BS in pharmacology at the age of 21 from Johns Hopkins University, while working as a research assistant to Professor John Jacob Abel, a prominent scientist with an interest in protein hormones such as insulin. After graduation, he worked on the biochemistry of insulin for three years with micro-chemist Hans Jensen at Johns Hopkins; they were among the first to contribute to the 15-year process of identifying the sequence of amino acids that comprised that protein.

Evans began his graduate studies in biochemistry at Columbia University in 1934, completed his PhD in 1936, and stayed for a year as a research fellow before joining the faculty at the University of Chicago as an instructor in 1937. He left for one year in 1939, for a research fellowship in the laboratory of Hans Krebs, who won the Nobel Prize in 1953. His rapid discoveries concerning CO2 fixation, after returning to Chicago in 1940, led to his meteoric rise from instructor to full professor and chairman of biochemistry in 1942, at the age of 32.

He remained on the University faculty for more than 40 years, with short absences to fill two national posts. During World War II, Evans served as a principal investigator in malaria research for the federal government's Office of Scientific Research and Development. After the war, in 1947-48, he was selected to serve as the scientific attache in the United States Embassy in London, speeding the transfer of scientific information between England, the Continent and the U.S.

After returning to Chicago in 1948, Evans was able to concentrate on building the department of biochemistry, an arduous process that depended as much on his personal drive and imagination as on the somewhat limited resources he had to lure leading scholars. He nevertheless quickly assembled an all-star roster of brilliant young scientists that included, among others: Konrad Bloch, who won the Nobel Prize in 1964 for his radioactive-tracer work on cholesterol biosynthesis; Elwood Jensen, who discovered the estrogen and androgen receptors and opened the way for new drugs to treat and prevent cancer; Albert Lehninger and Eugene Kennedy, who studied fatty acid oxidation by mitochondria; Lloyd Kosloff and Frank Putnam, fellow members of the phage group, who worked out the structure of antibodies; Hans Gaffron, an authority on photosynthesis; and, later, two Chicago graduates: Steiner, who discovered proinsulin and the multi-step process involved in the manufacture of insulin, and Goldwasser, who identified erythropoeitin, the hormone that stimulates the production of red blood cells.

Evans continued his own research, publishing more than 90 original research papers and his 1952 monograph, Biochemical Studies of Bacterial Viruses, before retiring from departmental chairmanship in 1972. He received many honors and served on national committees for the American Chemical Society, the National Research Council, the U.S. Public Health Service, the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences. He continued to teach biochemistry to college students until he retired in 1980.

He also won considerable renown on campus for the breadth of his concerns, his deep interest of the classics, music, the ballet and art, and his sagacious collection of modern French and English literature and original art works.

"He was very cultivated, very knowledgeable within and beyond science. He had a range of interests that was stunning in someone who had the kind of drive to become a department chairman at such a young age," recalled Kennedy.

"There was hardly a subject you could bring up that he didn't know something about, usually more than you did," recalled Steiner.

For example: in 1960, Evans wrote a brief essay on the origins of life for the Saturday Evening Post. He used the modest payment for the essay to purchase a painting by a little known young artist who interested him, George Tooker. When Evans retired 20 years later, he sold the painting. By then it was valued at more than $120,000.

Although he never married, Evans was very active socially, entertaining faculty and visitors to the University at his home. He was a member of the Racquet Club and the University Club of Chicago and the Traveller's of London. He is survived by a great niece and an adopted son, David Laswell of Chicago.

A memorial service at Bond Chapel is being planned for the spring.