Retrospective

Don Voet (1938–2023)

Charlotte Pratt
By Charlotte Pratt
July 19, 2023

With the death of Donald Voet in April, the biochemistry community lost one of its stars. Don’s many accomplishments were the product of his deep love of biochemistry as well as his remarkable dedication.

Voets: Don Voet co-authored the textbook "Biochemistry," first published in 1990, with his wife, Judith Voet.
ASBMB
Don Voet co-authored the textbook "Biochemistry," first published in 1990, with his wife, Judith Voet.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology (where Linus Pauling was his chemistry professor) and a doctorate in chemistry from Harvard, Don conducted postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and spent the rest of his academic career as a professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania.

Don’s research in X-ray crystallography, his understanding of a wide array of topics in biochemistry and his years of experience as an instructor impelled him to collaborate with his wife, Judith Voet, a biochemistry professor at Swarthmore College, to write a comprehensive textbook called simply “Biochemistry.” Legions of graduate and undergraduate students have benefitted from this work, first published in 1990.

Don’s commitment to education went far beyond textbooks. He and Judy Voet served as co-editors-in-chief of the journal Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, and in 2012 they received the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Award for Exemplary Contributions to Education. In addition, both Voets were longtime judges for the Undergraduate Poster Competition at ASBMB meetings, where they were treated like celebrities by the students and former students who had read their textbooks. 

Judith Voet, Suzanne Pfeffer (ASBMB president 2010–2012) and Don Voet at the ASBMB annual meeting in 2012, the year the Voets received the society's Award for Exemplary Contributions to Education.
ASBMB
Judith Voet, Suzanne Pfeffer (ASBMB president 2010–2012) and Don Voet at the ASBMB annual meeting in 2012, the year the Voets received the society's Award for Exemplary Contributions to Education.

I write this tribute as the third partner in a textbook collaboration that extended for roughly 25 years; I will allow others to speak more knowledgeably about Don’s life as a researcher, professor and collaborator in other ventures.

Like many biochemists in the 1990s, I was familiar with “Biochemistry,” my go-to source for all biochemical wisdom. It stood out from other books because the authors focused on chemistry and refused to reduce the mechanistic details of biochemical processes to black-box status. I was both thrilled and intimidated to be invited in 1996 to join the Voets in producing a smaller textbook, “Fundamentals of Biochemistry.”

Don Voet speaks at the ASBMB annual meeting in 2012, the year he and Judy Voet received the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Award for Exemplary Contributions to Education.
ASBMB
Don Voet speaks at the ASBMB annual meeting in 2012. He and Judy Voet judged the undergraduate poster contest for many years and often met starstruck students who had used their textbooks.

Don’s work over the years demonstrated his conviction that biochemical knowledge has limited value unless it is transmitted fully and honestly to the next generation of scientists. His writing style was intentionally aimed at students of all levels, never dumbed down, and straightforward — a way to invite readers to enter a conversation among professional scientists.

Ever collegial, Don insisted on dropping names into the text, referring to the discoveries of specific researchers wherever possible and borrowing figures from the original publications rather than rendering simplified versions. In cases where visual information was lacking, Don created his own molecular graphics, at a time when modeling software was not accessible to amateurs.

From my perspective, Don had an unlimited appetite for acquiring information. I can only imagine the vast size of his library of research papers. At our occasional in-person meetings, I was invariably impressed by his erudition in a variety of nonscience areas. His curiosity extended far beyond the molecular world; he went on expeditions to Antarctica, up mountains, under the sea, and to other destinations too numerous to list, where he swam, skied, hiked and dived.

As a writer, Don was exacting and precise. Although I doubt that anyone keeps track of such things, I believe his written works were largely error-free. He was unwilling to compromise on quality or accuracy, no matter how anxious the pleas of editors who were focused on deadlines and page counts.

In the early years, we shipped paper manuscripts back and forth. Some of those pages made their way to my scrap paper pile, and I occasionally find that the reverse side of a sheet on which I am scribbling bears Don’s edits in red ink, often liberally applied. These bring a smile to my face and remind me to attend to the details in my own work.

I consider myself fortunate to have been able to collaborate with and learn from Don, and I will miss him.

REMEMBRANCES

I have such fond memories of Don and Judy Voet at ASBMB meetings, graciously posing for photographs with flocks of admiring students. As the chair of the Undergraduate Poster Competition Committee, I appreciated Don and Judy's support of the event. In recent years, when they no longer judged, they attended as the honored guests that they were, engaging students who were thrilled to present their research to their textbook authors. 

Kathleen A. Cornely, Providence College

 

I used the Voet and Voet “Biochemistry” textbook in graduate school.  I recall it being my bible, especially during the roughly three weeks I took off from lab work to study for my preliminary exams.  I still have that book on my bookshelf in my office at work. 

I also recall getting bored with studying and teaching myself how to see protein structures in 3D by crossing my eyes looking at stereo images in the textbook, long before the days of programs like Chimera and PyMOL.

I also used the Voet, Voet and Pratt textbook, “Fundamentals of Biochemistry,” for many years when I first started teaching.

Pamela S. Mertz, St. Mary's College of Maryland

 

I first met Don more than 20 years ago.  Like many people in the field, I was more than a bit starstruck.  But, from our first conversation, I realized that he was gentle, kind and had a VERY clever and subtle sense of humor. 
Over time we shared many conversations, and when he and his wife, Judy, passed the editor’s baton of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education to me, I was overwhelmed by the implications.  In my mind and those of many others, BAMBEd was *their* journal. Due to their hard work and vision, BAMBEd had become the preeminent journal in the field, and I was fearful that I would not be able to do it justice. 

During that transition, I came to appreciate what a fine man Don was. Throughout that time, and ever since, he never hesitated to share insights, answer questions and provide encouragement. He was a gentleman and a fine mentor; his scientific and educational contributions will live on in me and many other biochemists, and I will forever be thankful for his impact on my life and career. 

Phil Ortiz, State University of New York

 

My first encounter with Don was at the inaugural Undergraduate Poster Competition, when it was a satellite session of the main ASBMB meeting.  Don was one of the first faculty members from a research university to serve as a judge. He added his voice to others, advocating for the poster competition, and helped make it a part of the main meeting. 

Each year I could count on seeing Don at the poster competition, serving as a judge and interacting with undergraduates. Along with his tireless service, Don brought his smile and clever sense of humor. Don always had time for the students I brought to the meeting and took an interest in their research and their careers.

Chris Rohlman, Albion College

 

As an undergraduate biochemistry student, I am fortunate to have encountered Professor Voet’s influential textbooks early on in my studies. They became my constant companions, offering clear explanations of complex concepts.

The problem-solving approach in these books, akin to the “Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry” textbook, promotes critical thinking and the practical application of learned concepts to real-world research scenarios. By presenting these diverse problems, Professor Voet stimulated creative thinking and fostered the development of essential analytical skills in undergraduate students like me, while simultaneously demonstrating the practical applications of biochemistry across various fields and cultivating an appreciation for its relevance.

As someone who is deeply inspired by his textbooks on biochemistry, I feel a profound sense of loss. Although I never had the opportunity to interact with and learn directly from Professor Voet, his books provided unwavering guidance and knowledge throughout my undergraduate studies.

Neelabh Datta, Asutosh College/University of Calcutta

Judy and Don Voet talk to Joan Steitz of Yale University at the 2015 ASBMB annual meeting.
ASBMB
Judy and Don Voet talk to Joan Steitz of Yale University at the 2015 ASBMB annual meeting.

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Charlotte Pratt
Charlotte Pratt

Charlotte Pratt is an associate professor of biology and director of the Pre-Professional Health Sciences Program at Seattle Pacific University.

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