S. Jonathon Singer died in February at age 92. He was a major figure in the biological sciences and a dear friend of mine.
For seven years, 1957-1964, I enjoyed an especially close learning and working relationship with Jon. Almost every day I saw his keen scientific mind at work and experienced the richness of his qualities as a person.
It began in 1957 in the Chemistry Department at Yale when I was hired on a temporary basis as a technician. It’s a tale worth retelling in these worrisome times. A local McCarthy-style campaign had ended my short-lived career as a junior high school teacher by spreading the word that I had been an organizer for the Labor Youth League, one of many organizations labeled as “subversive” by the McCarran “internal security” Board. After being unemployed for two months, I was hired by Julian Sturtevant, a close faculty colleague of Jon’s, as an act of personal kindness and a rejection of McCarthyism (conditional on whether I could prepare and qualify for Yale’s graduate program in Chemistry). Sparing details, it was Jon who became my mentor, encouraging me on the difficult journey to qualify, taking me on as a graduate student, then as a post-doc and collaborator at UC San Diego. It was with Jon in La Jolla that an idea I got as a graduate student came to fruition in “Affinity Labeling: a General Method for Labeling the Active Sites of Antibodies and Enzymes”.
I was a little older than Jon, and the mentoring relationship evolved into a deep family friendship.
Jon’s contributions to the understanding of fundamental biological phenomena were many and profound. Early on, while a Fellow with Linus Pauling, he collaborated in discovering the genetic basis of Sickle Cell Anemia. The most significant of his numerous contributions was in developing a model of the cell membrane that revolutionized previous notions and laid the basis for later discoveries on how cells function and how they interact. A Retrospective on Jon, by Russell Doolittle, will appear in the forthcoming issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).
Over the years, Jon became more and more concerned about the “human condition”, the dismal state of affairs in our country and the rest of the world. He was very pessimistic and came to think that the fundamental difficulty was a genetic limitation of human intelligence, encompassing all but the rare geniuses. (He made it clear that his notion of genius did not include himself or others who were just bright and accomplished in various fields.)
So, even though Jon and I shared many values and a commitment to social justice, we often debated his diagnosis of the underlying difficulty. I argued that it’s more a matter of an economic system that breeds enormous inequality and turns victims against each other to the advantage of neo-fascist demagogues.
I’m sure Jon felt vindicated, though horrified, by Trump’s rise to power. Surely one’s faith in a better future is being tested extremely. Still, as I wrote in my last letter to Jon, “I don’t think that the wonders of human achievement, especially culturally, belong solely to the occasional genius that randomly appears in our midst. And there’s certainly now a clear majority, of which you and I are still a part, who will resist and hopefully turn the tide against Trumpism and know-nothingism in general.”
With much love and appreciation, goodbye Jon.