Inside Salk - June 2008 - page 8

Inside Salk June 2008
Remembering Dr. Leslie Orgel
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, appeared in the January 2008
issue of PLoS Biology, published by the Public Library of Science, in
which he discusses the possibility of spontaneously generatedmetabolic
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 in February.
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.
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 James 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
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