Remembering Dr. Leslie Orgel (1927-2007)
In a world of intellectuals and scientific luminaries, Leslie Orgel was revered for his ability to reason. He was also admired for his strength of character, his dedication to truth and fairness.
His closest friends and colleagues say they could always turn to the 43-year veteran of Salk's faculty for advice. He had a rare talent for measuring the details of an abstract problem, and he was not afraid to be honest.
"Leslie was not only a friend but a mentor to me," says Inder Verma, a professor in the Salk Laboratory of Genetics, who first met Orgel when he came to the Institute as a research fellow when he was 24 years old. "Leslie was a gentleman first. He did not seek fame but was always in the background. He was totally dependable and we all admired, revered, and respected him with total trust for his judgment."
Gerald Joyce, a professor who teaches and conducts research at The Scripps Research Institute, recalls what he learned while working as a graduate student with Orgel at Salk.
"Sloppy thinking just wasn't allowed in his lab," Joyce says. "He was never caustic or mean, but if you said something that was incorrect, he would say, 'With all due respect...' and then he'd explain exactly why you were wrong. That can be tough for the ego, but once you've been trained like that, it's a whole new way of seeing the world."
Orgel was born into a merchant family in London in 1927. The elder of two children, he earned his bachelor's and doctorate degrees in Chemistry at Oxford University. In the wake of Jim Watson and Francis Crick's postulation of the double-helical structure of DNA, he went to the California Institute of Technology in 1953 for a research fellowship and began actively taking part in discussions and working groups on the fundamental molecules of life and their origins.
Orgel returned to England in 1955 to continue his work in inorganic chemistry at Cambridge University, but the intellectual challenge that had taken root in California stayed with him. Switching career paths, even within the encompassing field of chemistry, was difficult to do in England, so he accepted an invitation to join the founding faculty at the Salk Institute in 1964. Orgel built the Institute's Chemical Evolution Laboratory and remained at its helm for the rest of his career.
At the memorial service following his death from pancreatic cancer last October, fellow researchers and friends celebrated his long list of achievements, which include election to the Royal Society in the United Kingdom and the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S.; a set of simple statements about evolution that are known as "Orgel's Rules," which have been widely accepted as axioms by the scientific community; and collaboration with NASA on the Viking Mars Lander Program and projects related to the search for life on other planets.
They also recalled the parties he and his wife, Alice, an allergist, hosted at their house where they shared fine food and wine and his love and collection of tribal, hand-woven Oriental rugs, which he researched and could discuss in great detail.
Orgel remained active in his research until the end. His final scientific paper, submitted posthumously by Joyce, appears in the January 2008 issue of PLoS Biology, published by the Public Library of Science, in which he discusses the possibility of spontaneously generated metabolic cycles in the prebiotic world, without the framework of genetics. In Orgel's honor, the Salk Institute has inaugurated The Leslie Orgel Memorial Lecture, the first of which was given on Feb. 8 by Joyce.