Pioneering cell biologist Hewson Swift, PhD, 1920-2004

January 15, 2004

An internationally recognized expert on electron microscopy, chromosome structure and function, and the use of DNA to study evolutionary relationships, Hewson H. Swift, PhD, the George Wells Beadle Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the departments of molecular genetics and cell biology and pathology, and a member of the committees on genetics and on developmental biology at the University of Chicago, died at the University of Chicago Hospitals on January 1, 2004, from complications of influenza. He was 83.

A pioneer in the use of quantitative microscopy, Swift was the first scientist to measure the amount of DNA in various types of cells and in cell components such as mitochondria or chloroplasts, work that helped convince biologists that these organelles had genomes of their own. His finding that nearly all cells from an animal have the same amount of DNA, and that germ cells have half as much, confirmed the principal of DNA constancy and helped bring to an end any lingering skepticism about the genetic role of DNA.

He was also one of the founders, in 1960, and later president of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), the most important professional society in the field.

"Hewson Swift was not only a distinguished cell biologist but also a shining example for colleagues and students of how to do science," said Edwin Taylor, PhD, the Louis Block Professor of molecular genetics and cell biology and of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University. "He was a man of extraordinary integrity. He was honest, fair and unprejudiced, and he seemed to know everything about everything. If you had a question about biology, he was the first person to ask."

"Swift applied the most modern techniques to many current as well as old-fashioned problems," said Laurens Mets, PhD, chairman of molecular genetics and cell biology at the University. "With his death we lost an irreplaceable resource, a true naturalist, someone with vast biological information and understanding, ranging from ornithology to molecular biology, that was linked together in no other person or place."

Born November 8, 1920, in Auburn, New York, Hewson Hoyt Swift grew up in New York City. His early interest in insects and birds led him to major in zoology at Swarthmore College where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1942. Swift earned a master's in 1945 from the University of Iowa, where he and his wife, Joan Woodcock of New York City, both had fellowships. In 1946, Swift moved to the Washington, D.C., area where he was an entomologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and later the Curator of Spiders at the U.S. National Museum. In 1947, he moved back to New York to work toward a PhD in zoology at Columbia University, where he studied the structure of chromosomes under Arthur Pollister and Franz Schrader. He received his PhD in 1950 after completing his dissertation on "Determining DNA Amounts in Single Nuclei."

In 1949, Swift accepted a position teaching zoology at the University of Chicago. He has remained at the University ever since, rising to the rank of professor in 1958, serving as chairman of the department of biology from 1972-1977 and becoming the George Wells Beadle Distinguished Service Professor of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology and Pathology in 1977. His 54 years at the University were interrupted only by one year as a visiting professor at Harvard and another year as senior visiting research fellow to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, based in Canberra, Australia.

Swift's many honors and awards include election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1971, where he served as chairman of the section of cellular and developmental biology from 1976-1979. He also was awarded the Lillie Fellowship from the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, a fellowship at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Foreign Fellowship of the National Academy of Sciences, India, as well as the University of Chicago's Quantrell Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Gold Key Award by the Medical Alumni Association for contributions to medical curriculum. He was particularly proud of having received the ASCB's E.B. Wilson Award for outstanding research in cell biology.

In 1960, Swift and biologist Keith Porter, then at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, agreed to start a small scientific society, to be known as the American Society for Cell Biology. They organized the society's first meeting at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago and were pleasantly surprised when 700 scientists showed up, contributing 230 papers. While serving as president of the ASCB from 1963-1964, Swift helped launch the Journal of Cell Biology, which became the Society's official journal.

Swift served as president of the Histochemical Society from 1972-1973. He was also a member of the Genetics Society of America, the Society for Developmental Biology, the Tissue Culture Society, the American Society for Microbiology, the Society of Protozoologists, and the Phycological Society of America.

Swift's early research explored quantitative aspects of nucleic acids in a number of biological processes--including mitosis, growth, and differentiation--largely using quantitative techniques such as cytochemistry, immunohistochemistry, microphotometry, and autoradiography. Later, continuing quantitative analysis with electron microscopy, his lab also became interested in nucleic acids of mitochondria and chloroplasts, with a few forays into other cell organelles--centrioles, lysosomes, and microbodies. Swift's interest in chloroplast evolution led a team of researchers to investigate a group of marine prokaryote algae (Prochloron) as putative chloroplast precursors.

Later research in the Swift lab concerned the characterization of membrane proteins in Prochloron and other primitive marine algae, a study of symbiotic genomes of lichens, DNA-scaffold attachments in human lymphocytes, studies on nuclear polyploidy in plant evolution, and investigation of a gene affecting cell shape in a cyanobacterium.

He also ran a service lab that provided transmission and scanning electron microscope facilities and related services for his colleagues in basic and clinical departments.

During his 50-year career, Swift taught more than 110 courses in subjects such as invertebrate biology, protozoology, medical histology, cytochemistry, genome evolution, and cell biology. Swift loved teaching laboratory sessions and watching the science excite students. He credits his approximately 50 graduate students and post-docs over the years with his laboratory's successes.

Swift is survived by his wife Joan, who has a PhD in child development and has developed, taught, and administered programs in child development throughout the Chicago City Colleges; two daughters, Deirdre Ann Swift of Chicago and Barbara S. Brauer of San Geronimo, California; and three grandchildren. He and his wife enjoyed wildlife, photography, and travel, including expeditions to Borneo, the Aleutian Islands, Antarctica, and the Kamchatka Peninsula.

A memorial service is scheduled at Bond Chapel at noon on Saturday, January 31. (For details see http://swiftmemorial.uchicago.edu/) In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Hewson Swift lectureship in the department of molecular genetics and cell biology at the University of Chicago.

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