March 2010

Retrospective: Paul C. Zamecnik (1912 – 2009)

On a personal note, my first correspondence with Paul led to his pointing out that I should spell his name correctly, but he forgave me for that. In recent years, we discussed science and enjoyed evenings dining at his club, the Somerset, in Boston. A word that characterizes Paul is devoted: As a scientist, he was devoted to ideas and his research, and, as a person, he was devoted to his friends. He was a true gentleman— friendly, sincere and straightforward.

Paul will be sorely missed by friends and colleagues, several of whom have provided reflections below.

By the 1970s, I had come to know Paul Zamecnik from various RNA meetings, and, in 1979, I suggested we collaborate to use psoralen-mediated nucleic acid cross-linking in living cells (which my lab had perfected) to prove to skeptics that his antisense oligodeoxynucleotides that were inhibiting translation were indeed doing so via hybridization with mRNA. We didn’t do the experiment and, in retrospect, I suspect he had not been as bothered by the “skeptics” as I had been, which says much about his legendary determination and confidence in his results.

Our years as colleagues at the Worcester Foundation (1979–1997) were delightful. In early December each year, he would send me a handwritten note with the expressed “hope” that I (the director) would not mind if he and his wife took a short holiday vacation. Being Paul’s “boss” was a comical situation that amused us both, but those notes were so typical of his manner (and manners). He was a persistent fountain of ideas to us all, a caring mentor to young faculty, a delightful lunchtime raconteur and, of course, a living history of science textbook.

Blessed with extraordinary prescience, Paul Zamecnik was an experimentalist of uncommon talent who transformed the modern era of biochemistry. That he was also a gentleman brought the two strands of his being into helical harmony. 

Thoru Pederson
Vitold Arnett professor of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology
University of Massachusetts Medical School

***

I knew Paul Zamecnik for most of his scientific career, but my closest interactions with him occurred after he returned to the Massachusetts General Hospital and its cancer center in 1997. We discussed his ongoing research about applying the antisense technology that he developed years earlier. He was using in vitro systems to repair the genetic mutation in cystic fibrosis, to block cell wall synthesis in Mycobacterium tuberculosis and to target antibiotics to specific ribosome sites.

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